Any team who wins an All-Ireland has achieved something few counties can even dream of doing.
Reaching the pinnacle of hurling is something that takes countless hours of hard work and endless amounts of quality on both an individual and collective basis. Long story short, any team that has ever been in a position to call themselves All-Ireland champions at the end of the inter-county season has achieved something truly special and unique.
However, not every team that has brought the Liam McCarthy Cup home is a special one. While some are quite simply too strong for all challengers who stand before them, others were lucky enough to get the breaks they so desperately needed en route to hurling’s greatest prize.
The above is particularly highlighted in the list of winners over the last 10 years. There have been teams that could stand up to any of the greats from any generation. On the other hand, some teams were ‘one-hit wonders’ who took their chance when it came their way.
Here, we attempt to decipher between the good and the great teams who have climbed the steps of the Hogan Stand to collect one of Irish sports most coveted prizes since 2011.
10. Tipperary – 2019
This might seem woefully harsh on a team that managed to win a third All-Ireland in the 2010s. only bettered by Kilkenny. Not only that, but they also managed to beat Brian Cody’s Kilkenny in all three of those finals. No mean feat from a golden generation of Tipperary hurlers. However, there is some strong reasoning as to why we have placed the Premier County’s class of 2019 rock-bottom of this list.
Firstly, while any team who wins an All-Ireland is thoroughly deserving of their success, not all All-Ireland champions are the best team in the country. This certainly applies to the Tipperary team of 2019.
Despite winning all of their games in the round-robin phase of the Munster Championship, Liam Sheedy’s men were humbled by All-Ireland champions Limerick as John Kiely won his first Munster title at the helm of the Treaty County on a scoreline of 2-26 – 2-14. It was clear that Tipperary had quite some way to go before they could realistically compete with this all-conquering Limerick side who were head and shoulders above the chasing pack.
The second break that went in Tipperary’s favour two years ago was their quarter-final opponents. Laois somehow managed to defeat Dublin in Portlaoise to qualify for the last six of the All-Ireland series. A first quarter-final appearance for forty years and off the back of adrenaline-filled victory’s in the Joe McDonagh Cup final and the aforementioned Dublin game over the previous weeks meant Eddie Brennan’s side arrived in Croke Park as a jaded outfit who had achieved far more than they had set out to. There is no doubt that Laois were a far more relaxing and convenient prospect for a wounded Tipperary than an in-form Dublin team would have been.
The third piece of good fortune this Tipperary side had that made the path to glory that much more probable is the most crucial and brings us full circle. Although Tipperary really did show the mettle required to be champions in their come-from-behind win with 14-men over Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final, it was the match that took place the night before that opened the door for Liam Sheedy to lead his native county to the ultimate prize in his first year back as manager of the senior side.
Kilkenny had pulled off one of the shocks of the season when they managed to claim one of the most famous victories of the Brian Cody era with a one-point defeat of Limerick. It was vintage Kilkenny. However, there was no doubt that Limerick were by far the strongest side in Ireland and had blown their chances of a second All-Ireland title in-a-row. Tipperary had managed to avoid Limerick in an All-Ireland final. Had they have been lining up against one of the great sides of the last 20 years, we would almost certainly not be writing about Tipperary as the 2019 All-Ireland champions.
The final action that went Tipperary’s way during their successful All-Ireland winning year of 2019 was Richie Hogan’s red card on the stroke of half-time. With Tipperary narrowly leading by a single point on the stroke of half-time, referee James Owens issued a red card to Kilkenny legend Hogan for a challenge on Cathal Barrett. Whatever side you happen to lie on in the debate over the validity of the sending off, it is undeniable that Kilkenny going down to 14-men was the defining moment of what was a tight and cagey affair up until to that point. Tipp’s forward power shone brightly in the second-half and they ran out comfortable victors with a 3-25 – 0-20 win.
Ultimately, everything that needed to fell into place for Tipperary in 2019. As we have already stated, any team who wins an All-Ireland is more than deserving of the success that they have achieved. However, it is indisputable that as the season progressed, Tipperary were handed far more winnable ties than they would have expected and took their chance once the best team in the land were surprisingly eliminated from the championship.
One could argue that the disappointing defence of their crown in 2020, where they were defeated by Limerick and Galway and in between claimed a four-point victory against a very average Cork side, is a true reflection of where this Tipperary side is placed in the hurling hierarchy.
A team that achieved something great, but not a great team.
9. Clare – 2013
There is a solid argument to be made that Davy Fitzgerald’s Clare side who ended the Banner County’s 16-year wait for an All-Ireland title is the weakest of the last decade.
It was Clare’s first All-Ireland final appearance since they were defeated by Kilkenny in 2002 and their first victory since 1997. They had been comfortably defeated in the Munster semi-final by their eventual opponents in the decider Cork. After that 0-23 – 0-15 defeat in the Gaelic Grounds, Clare looked like they were in the exact same position that they had found themselves in for the previous ten years: nowhere near the holy grail. Moreover, since their famous 2013 victory, the Munster county has reverted to type, their only piece of silverware being a solitary Allianz League Division 1 title in 2016.
So, after all of that how have we come to the conclusion that a team who even we consider to be the proverbial “flash in the pan” is superior to a generation of Tipperary hurlers who wrapped up a third All-Ireland for themselves in 2019?
Well, although there was an unhealthy amount of procrastination before we finally reached a verdict, it ultimately comes down to one very key point that swings almost entirely in Clare’s favour: the period that both sides played in. While Tipperary took advantage of season-defining breaks and a power vacuum that had emerged post-Kilkenny’s dominance of the previous decade and the first half of the 2010’s, Clare managed to win the All-Ireland in the midst of Kilkenny still residing as the powerhouses of the hurling world and Tipperary were hot on the heels of Cody’s men.
That means Clare avoided being placed last.
To put this Clare’s side achievement into perspective, Kilkenny (6) and Tipperary (1) had won the last seven All-Ireland’s between them. To go further back, either Kilkenny or Tipperary had been involved in fifteen of the previous sixteen All-Ireland finals. This Clare side didn’t take advantage of the neighbouring counties dominance coming to an end. Kilkenny and Tipp would face each other in three of the next five All-Ireland finals (2014, 2016 and 2019) and in the three years after 2013, the Cats and the Premier would once again share Liam McCarthy between themselves.
To win an All-Ireland in any era is an achievement of seismic proportions. Managing to claim hurling’s most prized asset during a period when Kilkenny, arguably the greatest team in the history of the sport, were collecting All-Ireland medals the way some people collect stamps, as well as a Tipperary team who found a way to consistently put it up to and often defeat said great team, is something that can’t be overlooked.
Although Clare did not defeat either Kilkenny or Tipperary on the road to glory, they did play some scintillating hurling in 2013. Th Banner racked up 2-23 against Waterford and put 1-32 and 2-24 past Laois and Wexford in the All-Ireland qualifiers following their defeat to Cork in the Munster Championship.
Embed from Getty Images
Many thought it would end for Clare after their back door victories and that the heavyweights of the championship would have too much for them in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series. It couldn’t have turned out more differently.
Their forward line consisted of the championship’s top scorer Colin Ryan, eventual hurler and young hurler of the year Tony Kelly, dual star Podge Collins, towering full-forward Darach Honan, sharpshooter Colin Ryan and ball-winner John Conlon. The sides mix of vibrancy and steeliness was the ultimate cocktail and they easily defeated 2012 All-Ireland finalists Galway and Munster champions Limerick in the quarter-final and semi-final.
The final itself was a classic, with a late long-distance point from corner-back Domhnall O’Donovan salvaging a replay for Clare on a score of Clare 0-25 – Cork 3-16.
Davy Fitzgerald’s men would not let their second chance pass them by and showed why they were deserved victors with a scintillating attacking display that proved too much for Jimmy Barry Murphy’s Cork. A hat-trick of goals from youngster Shane O’Donnell set Clare on their way and they were worthy winners, beating the Rebels 5-16 – 3-16 on a famous Saturday night in Croke Park.
They were certainly not a team who reached anywhere close to their full potential in the coming years and one All-Ireland may seem like an underachievement from a group of players that were considered to be Clare’s finest since their magnificent team of the 90’s. However, Davy Fitzgerald brought back the “Banner Roar” in the middle of an era where two counties dominated to such an extent that nobody had ever seen the likes of before or since. For that, Clare’s achievement in 2013 slightly eclipses that of Tipperary’s in 2019.
8. Galway – 2017
Galway’s tale of 2017 somewhat resembles that of the previous two teams on this list. They saw their chance and they took it with both hands. The Tribesmen, much like Clare before them and to a lesser extent, Tipperary two years on, took advantage of the lack of a serious powerhouse getting in their way on their march to ending a 29-year wait for an All-Ireland.
There was enough to this Galway side to keep a comfortable distance between Tipperary and Clare. However, the disappointment that will ultimately linger for a substantial number of players who were part of the Galway squad during the 2010’s is that they had limitless potential that was rarely harnessed in the correct way. While they were quite easily placed ahead of the first two sides, they could have been far higher in this list had they replicated their 2017 throughout the last decade. Something that they were surely capable of but sadly never came to fruition.
You might be asking why is it that Galway, who won one All-Ireland in the last 10 years, is placed ahead of a Tipperary team who won their third All-Ireland of the decade in 2019? Well, the answer is quite straightforward: Galway were the best team in Ireland in 2017. Tipperary were not.
Everything over the previous years had indicated that it was only a matter of time before Liam McCarthy made the long trip back to the west. They could count themselves unlucky that they could not defeat a truly great Kilkenny team in the 2012 decider. Despite being the dominant side for large portions of the game, an inspired Henry Shefflin and Kilkenny’s inability to give up meant that the game was forced into a replay.
Kilkenny proved too shrewd and powerful for the Leinster champions in the replay, beating Galway 3-22 – 3-11. However, a first Leinster title in the bag and confirmation that they had at least become equals with Tipperary in the chasing pack behind Kilkenny built a solid platform for them to build on in the coming years.
This promise did not bring a tangible return in the next two years, much to the despair of both players and supporters. A pitiful display against in the Leinster Final, losing 2-25 – 2-13, led to the tame relinquishment of their provincial crown. An equally abject display against Clare meant Galway had suffered a premature exit from the championship.
2014 proved to be far worse for Anthony Cunningham’s men when they were knocked out in the All-Ireland qualifiers by Tipperary. They had barely scraped past Laois in that year’s Leinster quarter-final and the loss to their Munster neighbours suggested that Galway had gone backwards at an alarmingly rapid pace since their exploits in 2012.
2015 was to be a crucial year in more than one way. They proved to both themselves and to the outside world that they were still serious All-Ireland contenders by making the All-Ireland final where they would eventually find Kilkenny too big a hurdle to leap, losing 1-22 – 1-18. However, maybe the most important aspect of 2015 was that it was Anthony Cunningham’s final year in charge.
While Cunningham had achieved as much as any of his predecessors since Cyril Farrell in the ‘80s, the players no longer felt that they could claim the holy grail under Cunningham’s stewardship and pushed him out the exit door. Many found this act of ‘player power’ to be poor form and against everything that the GAA stood for. The Galway players would not have to wait too long before the critics were silenced, and the players themselves would be vindicated as Micheál Donoghue was appointed as the new manager of the senior side.
2016 was the new man’s first year in charge and even though nothing too spectacular was achieved, a one-point All-Ireland semi-final defeat to eventual champions Tipperary was a respectable start and something to build on for what would presumably be an all-out assault on the championship in 2017.
An assault is exactly what we were served up as Donoghue created a monster of a team that no side were able to match in either intensity or skill. They faced Tipperary in the 2017 Allianz League Division 1 final. Tipp were heavy favourites beforehand, but Donoghue’s men laid down a marker that anyone who took them lightly would do so at their own peril as they destroyed the All-Ireland champions, 3-21 – 0-14.
Their red-hot form continued into the summer. The Tribesmen easily swept Dublin and Offaly aside on their way to a 0-29 – 1-17 Leinster final victory over Wexford. Galway’s brutal efficiency was there for all to see and it was clear that it would take an almighty performance to have a chance against a team as hungry as they were for success.
For the third semi-final in-a-row, they faced Tipperary and for the third time, only a single point would separate the sides. Thankfully, from Galway’s point of view, new All-Ireland champions would be crowned as they won by 0-22 – 1-18 to set up a decider with Waterford.
The Tribesmen ended a near three-decade famine as they were at their ruthless best to defeat Waterford on a scoreline of 0-26 – 2-17. It had been the culmination of years of hurt and anguish, near misses and false dawns, and finally hard work and sheer class that had led Galway to this moment that they had so thoroughly deserved. They were the undisputed best team in the land.
Galway’s 2017 All-Ireland winning side consisted of 7 members of that year’s All-Star team. The fact that the seven were split evenly between the backs (3 – Padraig Mannion, Gearoid McInerney and Daithi Burke), midfield (David Burke) and forwards (3 – Joe Canning, Conor Whelan and Conor Cooney) is a sign of how well-rounded this Galway outfit actually were. On top of those seven standout players, they had quality in abundance with the likes of Aidan Harte, Johnny Coen, Joseph Cooney and Jason Flynn.
Galway were ultimately a team that were further along the line than the previous two teams in this list and they proved it in 2018. A Leinster final victory over Kilkenny and a second consecutive All-Ireland final appearance where they lost by one-point to Limerick proved that they were not a one-hit-wonder.
Their consistency levels pre-and-post their 2017 All-Ireland win is a major reason why they were a superior outfit to the 2013 and 2019 champions. However, if you are still in doubt over why Galway are placed ahead of Clare and Tipperary, ask yourself this question: If Galway’s 2017 team played Clare’s 2013 side ten times and likewise, faced Tipperary ten times, which team would have more victories?
7. Kilkenny – 2015
Kilkenny’s 2015 All-Ireland win was their fourth title in five years and a staggering eight All-Ireland victories in ten years. It was yet another notch on Brian Cody’s belt as he claimed his eleventh All-Ireland championship as the manager of his native county.
However, it marked the end of Kilkenny’s dominance that had never been witnessed in the modern game. The Cats have failed to reclaim the Liam McCarthy Cup since their triumph six years ago and in truth, have rarely looked like seriously threatening to a return to the promised land despite two runs to the final since.
2015 was a clear sign that Kilkenny were no longer the same force to be reckoned with that they had become under Cody’s guidance. Whereas their all-conquering four-in-a-row winning side the 2000s had the best player in the country in almost every position on the pitch, Kilkenny’s last All-Ireland winning team were made up of a group of hungry players who were efficient in what they did alongside a sprinkling of top-class talent in the forward line.
By far the most significant proof that this Kilkenny team lacked in youth and energy and also seemed to be feeding off the remarkable abilities’ of 2014 hurler of the year Richie Hogan and the eventual 2015 winner of the award TJ Reid along with the undying will and determination of Michael Fennelly driving the team forward from midfield for that year’s All-Ireland final with Galway.
Seven of the starting line-up from the final are no longer part of the Kilkenny senior set-up. The majority of the men named on the bench are also gone including the two Power brothers, Richie and John, who were the only two substitutes to see any game time. Furthermore, of the eight starters who remain, only one will not be in his thirty’s come the start of the 2021 season. This was not a Kilkenny side for the future as can be seen by their lack of All-Ireland medals from 2015 onwards. It was a team for the present, and while it may seem that the above is a critique of this team, in 2015, Kilkenny were nothing if not efficient.
The All-Ireland champions were utterly ruthless when Wexford travelled to Nowlan Park for Kilkenny’s first venture into the championship in 2015 for a highly anticipated Leinster semi-final clash. An inspired Ger Aylward bagged 3-05 in a superb individual display. Kilkenny’s heavy scorers didn’t disappoint either with TJ Reid and Richie Hogan scoring 1-07 and 1-05 apiece. A 5-25 – 0-16 was a stark reminder to all that Kilkenny were still the sole rulers of the land.
The routine nature of their defeat of Galway in the Leinster decider was far more worrying from a neutral’s perspective, who would have been wishing for some sort of a challenge to the Cats dominance from Galway. Instead, the Tribesmen were not a match for a Kilkenny team who never had to get out of third gear in a comfortable 1-25 – 2-15 win in Croke Park.
Again, the gap was there for all to see when Kilkenny shrugged aside a battling but tame Waterford team in the semi-final. Kilkenny were motoring along without any trouble due to the sheer quality and inner belief that other sides simply could not match.
It was expected that a repeat of the Leinster final for the All-Ireland decider would end in closer proximities than Kilkenny’s previous meeting with Galway. Instead, it was more of the same as Kilkenny brushed the Tribesmen off for a victory that was altogether too easy for such an occasion with the score reading Kilkenny 1-22 – 1-18 Galway. Had it not been for a late Joe Canning goal, there would have been more than two scores between the sides. Kilkenny were once again deserved All-Ireland champions.
There are two reasons for this Kilkenny outfit being the lowest placed side to wear the black and amber on this list. Firstly, it was a team that went downhill from the lofty heights that they had reached in 2015. The second is not a fault of Kilkenny’s but rather a consequence of the other counties limp attempts at dethroning the Cats. No team that Kilkenny faced in the championship ever remotely looked like they could get within any sort of reachable distance of Brian Cody’s troops. For all outside of Kilkenny, 2015 will be remembered as the year when the quality of teams dropped to a very low level.
Ger Loughnane described Kilkenny’s 2015 All-Ireland victors as nothing more than functional. In hindsight, Loughnane was right. It was by some distance Cody’s least impressive team to win the All-Ireland. However, what they achieved and the manner in which they achieved it means that they edge Galway’s 2017 All-Ireland winning side to sit seventh in the list of the greatest All-Ireland winners of the last decade.
6. Tipperary – 2016
This is where it starts to become very difficult to tier teams as we take a look at some of the greatest sides not just of the last ten years, but of the century. It’s very easy to forget the level that Tipperary reached in 2016 when they finally backed up their 2010 victory with a second All-Ireland for a golden generation of players. Their forward play was nothing short of breath-taking and as the year progressed it became close to an impossible task for teams to find the scores it took to defeat Tipp.
The year began with a new management team as Michael Ryan took the reins from Eamon O’Shea. Ryan had at last got the top job after he had been a member of both Liam Sheedy’s and O’Shea’s backroom team. However, it was not an appointment that was overwhelmingly accepted by the Tipperary public who felt that a continuation of a management set-up that had ultimately failed to add another All-Ireland title with a squad who had more than enough potential to do so was not the best way forward.
The worry in Tipperary quarters was that there would be an element of staleness for the players who had worked with Ryan for close to a decade rather than the freshness that normally comes with a new voice leading the dressing room. The naysayers could not have got it more wrong.
Much like Sheedy and O’Shea before him, Ryan had an aura inside the four walls of the dressing room that few would appreciate at the beginning of his tenure but would completely understand come the end of the year.
We got a snippet of the firepower Tipperary had in their first outing of the summer as they faced Cork in the Munster quarter-final. It was far from a strenuous afternoon for the home supporters as captain Seamus Callanan led a star-studded forward line to a 0-22 – 0-13 win at Semple Stadium.
Their next match was a thriller. With home advantage once again, Callanan scored 1-06 and midfield dynamo Michael Breen scored 2-01 to book a place in the Munster final after a hard-fought 3-12 – 1-16 win over Limerick.
While they had showed in patches that they were capable of scoring bursts that could change a game in a matter of moments, it was their clash with Derek McGrath’s Waterford side that Tipperary put in a complete performance for the full seventy minutes. Tipperary 5-19 – 0-13 Waterford. 1-11 from Callanan. 3-02 from John McGrath. 1-01 from Breen. Jason Forde, Noel McGrath and Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher never got near top form, probably because they never had to. It was one of those performances that immediately catapulted Tipperary to favourites for the All-Ireland. Former Galway All-Ireland winning manager Cyril Farrell raised some eyebrows after the game when he said that Tipperary’s performance in the Gaelic Grounds reminded him of Kilkenny in their pomp. Farrell was to be proven right as the year reached its climax.
Tipperary had revenge to the forefront of their minds when they were paired with Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final for the second consecutive year. The curtain was brought down on Eamon O’Shea’s time in charge of the side in 2015 as Galway narrowly defeated the Premier by a single point in an absolute thriller to send Tipp packing. It was to be a similar story one year later but crucially, there was a different outcome.
Having staked their claim as All-Ireland favourites in their battering of Waterford, Tipperary knew that a rejuvenated Galway side, who also had a new man at the helm in Micháel Donoghue, were more than a worthy opponent. Pádraic Maher’s earth-shattering shoulder to Galway’s star man Joe Canning midway through the first half was as clear a signal of intent as you are ever likely to see in any sporting arena: Tipperary were willing to go to hell and back to make another final.
It was not just a message that was sent by Maher either. His now iconic shoulder left Portumna’s Canning requiring attention and eventually he was forced off injured. A devastating blow for Galway, but a shot in the arm to the whole Tipperary team.
Callanan was once more the star of the show, hitting 0-09 albeit failing to score from open play. Noel McGrath and Michael Breen scored 0-03 each as they yet again proved that they were worthy of the title as the best midfield duo in the country. Goals from John McGrath and John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer saw Tipp crawl over the finish line as they banished the demons of their haunting loss in 2015 by winning 2-19 – 2-18 in what was yet another memorable affair between the two counties.
While their semi-final defeat spelt the end for one manager twelve months earlier, their marginal victory one year later would leave Tipperary one win from glory. However, it would be their toughest test of all as they once again faced their arch-nemesis In Brian Cody and Kilkenny.
The two sides met for what was a remarkable fifth All-Ireland final in eight years between each other. It was to be the game that confirmed every Kilkenny supporters worst fear – Tipperary had officially surpassed the Cats.
It was an attacking display to match them all as Tipperary just kept coming at the Kilkenny defence until it invariably broke. Seamus Callanan showed why he was the frontrunner for hurler of the year (which eventually went to Waterford’s Austin Gleeson) as he terrorised Joey Holden all day to score 0-13 points. This time he was to hit a sensational 0-09 from play in what was one of the greatest individual displays in an All-Ireland final.
The backup to Callanan wasn’t too shabby either as the Tipperary forwards proved too hot to handle for a Kilkenny backline that hadn’t been brutalised as much since the 2010 final against the same opposition. 1-05 from John O’Dwyer, 1-03 from John McGrath and scores from Patrick Maher and Jason Forde (0-02 each) as well as 0-01 point apiece from Noel McGrath, Dan McCormack, Pádraic Maher and Seamus Kennedy left a packed Croke Park in no doubt as to who were deserving All-Ireland champions on a sun-drenched day in the capital.
While Tipperary did not back up their 2016 victory immediately afterwards, their attacking displays throughout 2016 were on a different level from anything that had been seen since Kilkenny’s four-in-a-row winning team. Mix that with a backline that not just defended with unmatched aggression and intensity but also contributed heavily to the scoreboard by giving high-quality ball to the forwards as well as scoring themselves, means that this Tipperary team were something to behold and their only complaint can be why they are not placed higher on this list.
5. Limerick – 2018
We enter the top half with a team who ended Limerick’s 45-year spell in the wilderness as they won the All-Ireland for the first time since 2018. While there is no doubting the brilliance of this Limerick side, they are maybe remembered more fondly than they should be due to their achievements in the years that followed.
The Treaty humbled Tipperary in their Munster Championship opener (Limerick 1-23 – Tipperary 2-14) as they immediately put up two points on the board in the new round-robin format. A draw with Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh (Cork 1-25 – 0-28 Limerick) followed. Perhaps this was a more important result than most would consider it to be. With the likes of Tom Morrissey, Seamus Flanagan, Cian Lynch and a number of others coming to the fore, Limerick had backed up a strong performance in their first game with a crucial result and performance that gave them the belief that they could find the consistency that Limerick supporters longed for.
A return to the Gaelic Grounds brought with it a straightforward thirteen-point victory over a pitiful Waterford side and safe passage to the All-Ireland series. They travelled to their neighbours Clare knowing that should they avoid defeat they would qualify for the Munster final. However, Clare maintained a standard of hurling throughout that Limerick simply could not get near as they were hammered 0-26 – 0-15. It was a sign that this team were nowhere near the finished article. The optimism of the previous weeks had completely evaporated. Limerick were now going into the knockout stages under the radar. It just so happened to turn out that was exactly what they needed.
They swatted aside Joe McDonagh Cup champions Carlow with relative ease in the preliminary quarter-final. It was in the quarter-final itself that we began to see the true nature of this Limerick side. A late Richie Hogan goal looked like it would be enough for Kilkenny to pull off an unlikely win considering the considerable gap in the performance levels of both sides. For Limerick teams of the past, it was the type of game that would have ended in a back-patting pity party.
The same old lines would have resurfaced that were heard all too often in the Treaty County over the years. “Sure, they gave it their all”, “they were unlucky”, “we’ll build on it for next year hopefully”. The closing stages of the game showed that this group of players were different. They had a spine that teams of yesteryear had severely lacked in crunch moments. Trailing by two points after Hogan’s devastating goal, Limerick outscored Kilkenny by 0-05 – 0-01 for the remainder of the encounter to deservedly make the semi-final, winning by 0-27 – 1-22. Limerick had passed their sternest test of character to date.
They faced Cork for the second time that summer in front of more than 70,000 people in Croke Park for what was arguably the best game of a plethora of memorable contests throughout the course of the championship. Aaron Gillane shone brightest as he hit 0-13 for John Kiely’s men. Again, it was the vibrancy and youth of that stood out. Gearoid Hegarty, Declan Hannon and Graham Mulcahy, along with the aforementioned Lynch and Flanagan led a new look side along with a whole host of exciting young talent.
Kiely had clearly mastered the art of tapping into unfulfilled potential as he drained the maximum from his players. A masterful save from Nicky Quaid late in the game allowed Limerick to hang on for a draw and bring the game to extra time after seventy minutes of non-stop action. For the first time, we got a glimpse of the extent of Limerick’s bench. Shane Dowling and Pat Ryan entered the fray and became goalscoring heroes as Limerick proved too fit, too fast and simply too good for Munster champions Cork, beating them on a scoreline of 3-32 – 2-31.
Limerick had for the second consecutive game found a way to get over the line in a closely fought encounter. They were one game away from immortality.
The Munster team faced Galway who were seeking to regain the Liam McCarthy after they ended their own drought in 2017. However, Limerick were not to be denied as they brought a mixture of quality and intensity that had surpassed everything they had done in the run-up to the final. Goals from Mulcahy, Morrissey and Dowling gave Limerick a lead that proved too much for Galway to claw back. While they were evidently filled with nerves as the game went on, allowing Galway to get within a single point of them, they deservedly won the All-Ireland for the eighth time as they notched up 3-16 to Galway’s 2-18.
They were not as good as many remember. On so many occasions they were within an inch of their championship lives that it became a health hazard for Limerick followers. The Treaty were far from the brute force that they would become in 2020. However, this team set the platform for what was to come and played some sensational hurling along the way. A brilliant side who would only get better.
4. Kilkenny – 2012
This team was the end of Kilkenny’s four-in-a-row winning team. While Kilkenny would go on to win a further two All-Ireland championships in the next three years, a lot of the players who had been part of the history-making side of the previous decade would never reach those heights again after 2012.
However, it is easy to forget how good Kilkenny were in 2012. They still possessed some of the best players to ever play the game and their hunger for success was there for all to see. The fear factor that has dwindled in recent years was as strong as ever at this time and was quite possibly the deciding factor in them clinching their sixth All-Ireland in seven years.
They started the championship with one of the most routine wins of the entire summer. 1-03 from Richie Power and 1-02 from TJ Reid along with 0-10 from Henry Shefflin allowed Kilkenny to cruise into the Leinster final after they hammered Dublin by 2-21 – 0-09 in Portlaoise. What made the victory all the more impressive was the expectancy amongst many of a strong Dublin performance beforehand.
Kilkenny refused to allow such a thing to materialise, suffocating the Dublin forwards until they were eventually forced into submission. With experienced heads such as JJ Delaney, Jackie Tyrell, Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan marshalling the side, there was never a thought as to whether the inexperienced Paul Murphy would get exposed.
That watertight backline would completely fold in the Leinster final to the bemusement of Kilkenny supporters. The Cats were heavily fancied to comfortably dispose of Galway prior to throw-in but the game itself was simply staggering. The Galway forwards ran amok on a wet and miserable day in Croke Park. 1-07 from Joe Canning, including a sensational goal where he caught the ball and turned in one movement to strike past David Herity in the Kilkenny goal, led the Tribesmen to their first Leinster victory.
The worrying thing from a Kilkenny perspective wasn’t that a truly special player in Canning tore them to shreds, it was more so the fact that the other Galway forwards were given the space and time needed to obliterate the Cats. 0-05 from Cyril Donnellan and 1-02 from David Burke were the type of individual scores that Kilkenny quite simply would not accept on most occasions. It was reminiscent of the Tipperary decimation two years previously. Cody would not allow it to happen again.
The next two games would prove that Kilkenny did not take defeats easily and were at their most dangerous when they were wounded. A brilliant performance from the legendary Shefflin was the highlight of a wonderful display against Limerick in the quarter-finals. The important aspect of this game was that Kilkenny had brought forwards into the fold who had not been given much game time up until that point. 1-02 each from Aidan Fogarty and Colin Fennelly was a stark reminder of how much depth the Kilkenny panel had as they left Thurles with a 4-16 – 1-16 victory in their back pockets.
Despite their win against Limerick, there were still some question marks lingering about the viability of Kilkenny defending their All-Ireland crown with a backline that was in a fragile state following heavy concessions in the previous two games. Those questions would not be answered in the next game, but there could certainly be no questions whatsoever about the class of Kilkenny’s attackers.
They were at their superb best and put in their finest display of the year in a whopping 4-24 – 1-15 win against Tipperary. Shefflin again led the scoreboard with 0-11, with TJ Reid (2-2) and Aidan Fogarty (1-3) marching in behind as they surprisingly crushed Declan Ryan’s poor Tipperary team. While there were still questions around the backline after they conceded yet another heavy score, the game was, and forever will be remembered for Lar Corbett’s bizarre marking of Tommy Walsh. The 2010 hurler of the year seemed more interested in the Tullaroan man than he did in the ball and only served to highlight how far Tipperary had fallen under Ryan.
For Kilkenny, they were back in the showpiece event where they had the chance to right the wrongs of the Leinster final as they once again faced Galway.
Shefflin would cement his status as the best hurler in the land and one of the greatest of all time as he carried Kilkenny throughout an even final. 0-12 from the Ballyhale man and 2012 hurler of the year kept Kilkenny in the game when a number of their players put in under-par performances. No other Kilkenny player scored more than 0-02 as a late Joe Canning free meant that the game ended in a draw, Galway 2-13 – 0-19 Kilkenny. Despite Canning denying the Cats with the last action of the game, Cody and his men were all too delighted to get a second bite at the cherry.
They wouldn’t let it slip this time as Walter Walsh was surprisingly named to start the replay. He burst onto the scene with 1-03 and further goals from Richie Power and Colin Fennelly left little doubt as to who were the true kings of hurling. They had avenged their Leinster final defeat with a brilliant 3-22 – 3-11 win.
This Kilkenny side were not as strong an outfit as they had been in previous years but their mixture of top-class backs coinciding with an abundance of forward talent to choose from was the perfect combination. There were a few bumps along the way, but they showed why they were great by responding to each setback in a manner that only true champions could.
3. Kilkenny – 2014
There was very little between the Kilkenny class of 2012 and that of two years later. The main reason that the 2014 champions get the nod is nothing to do with being superior to the 2012 side. Simply put, they had tougher tests to pass than two years previous and for that, they sit above the 2012 team.
Having said all that, they could not have asked for an easier start! A home tie on a Saturday night in Nowlan Park against a desperate Offaly side was exactly the type of game any team would wish for to get their championship season started. After a dismal year in 2013, where Kilkenny were eliminated at the quarter-final stage, there were murmurings that some of the Kilkenny stalwarts from the Cody era were too far down the road. One of those mentioned was Eoin Larkin but the James Stephens clubman quickly dispelled the myths of retirement when he put in a man of the match performance, scoring 2-04 to help ease Kilkenny through to a Leinster semi-final showdown with Galway.
A 5-32 – 1-18 victory at home to Offaly was never going to be enough to prove that Kilkenny were back to their best. They knew how important the Leinster semi-final was with their biggest provincial rivals, not just to make a return to the Leinster final but also to send a message that they were still serious contenders for the big prize. On a warm Sunday afternoon in O’Connor Park, the two sides played out the best game of the championship to date. There is so much to say about this gem of a match but the best way to sum it up is to talk about the game from the 63rd minute onwards.
Leading by ten points, Kilkenny had one-eye on a Leinster final date with Dublin. But three goals, two from Conor Cooney and a penalty from Joe Canning drew Galway level with the final whistle a matter of moments away. Then, royalty took centre stage. ‘The King’ Henry Shefflin scored a sensational point from the left-hand touchline to put Kilkenny one-point up before his apparent heir to the throne Joe Canning responded with an equally sensational point from the opposite side of the pitch to force the game into a replay on a score of Galway 5-16 – 3-22 Kilkenny.
The replay took place in the same location but there was a vastly different outcome, much to the delight of Brian Cody and his players. TJ Reid, who was quickly taking over from Shefflin as the main man in the team, backed up his 1-08 from the first tie with 2-11 in the replay. With Reid’s firepower and the ever-classy Richie Hogan pulling the strings from midfield, Kilkenny proved too much for Galway as they deservedly won by eight points, 1-17 – 3-19.
The Leinster final was nothing short of a walk in the park as Kilkenny tacked on point after point to win the Leinster title for the first time since 2011. A 0-24 – 1-09 victory over Dublin is not something that Kilkenny fans would usually get excited about, but a strong defensive performance tied in with some much-needed silverware (by Kilkenny’s lofty standards) put the Cats in a strong position to bring the Liam McCarthy Cup back to Noreside along with the Bob O’Keeffe Cup. That task would prove far more difficult than expected.
It was Kilkenny’s semi-final win against Limerick that gives them the edge over the 2012 team. Whereas the 2012 side couldn’t cope with the intensity that Galway brought to the Leinster final, the Cats showed the true hallmark of champions to overcome a Limerick side that brought even more energy and boldness than Galway had two years before.
Kilkenny somehow stood up to everything Limerick had to throw at them and were still standing come the final whistle. In what was a relatively low scoring affair, due in part to the astonishingly wet conditions that the game was played in, goals from Richie Hogan and Richie Power either side of half-time were enough for Kilkenny to advance on a score of 2-13 – 0-17. It was a game that was an almost complete contrast to the shootouts that Kilkenny had won up until that point in the season.
That is what really stands out from this Kilkenny side. Much like the great Cody sides of the past, they were capable of winning whatever style of game they were embroiled in. Not only were they able to win in different fashions, but they also relished it. Whether it be a battle in winter-like conditions or the most beautiful game of hurling to ever take place (we’re almost there!), Kilkenny managed to thrive in both or anything in between. If that is not a sign of a great team, then nothing is.
And so, we come to the most beautiful game of hurling to ever take place. The 2014 All-Ireland final once again pitted together the two teams that dominated their generation, Kilkenny and Tipperary. There is so much to say about Kilkenny’s 3-22 – 1-28 draw with Tipperary in the third consecutive All-Ireland final that failed to provide a winner. Richie Power rolling back the years to score 2-1. His namesake Richie Hogan putting in a masterful display of skill and leadership as he all but cemented his place as hurler of the year (an award that he would eventually collect in 2014). TJ Reid firing into the net at the Hill 16 end.
That was just Kilkenny, and there was so much more to mention that would require an article of its own. Of course, the game is remembered mainly for Hawkeye’s last-minute clarification that John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer long-range free had gone marginally wide, a decision that still hurts deeply for Tipperary supporters. The only true justice that this game can be given is this: if this was your first time to watch a game of hurling and you were bored for even one second of such a pulsating tie, then hurling is most definitely not the sport for you.
The replay saw Kilkenny add a new string to their bow. The one criticism of this Kilkenny side throughout the championship was that they were not in complete control of their games. Limerick had managed to draw them into a dogfight in the knowledge that they didn’t have the firepower to compete with Kilkenny in an open game.
In the first game with Tipperary, Eamon O’Shea’s team got exactly what they wanted as the game became a nightmare for the backs and a dream for the forwards of both sides. Kilkenny showed their mettle to avoid defeat on both occasions, but a replay played in the same vein as the first clash would almost certainly end in tears for the Cats. Brian Cody showed his true greatness for the umpteenth time as he made two crucial changes to his side. Pádraig Walsh and John Power both started the game in an attempt to add more physicality to the Kilkenny line-up.
It was a masterstroke from Cody as both players contributed heavily to a tenth All-Ireland victory for both Cody and Henry Shefflin. Power scored 1-1, as did his brother Richie, to help fire Kilkenny to a 2-17 – 2-14 victory. A more pragmatic approach that focused on not allowing space for Tipperary forwards and pouring numbers into the midfield area to cut off Tipperary’s supply lines had worked a treat.
Their unparalleled ability to adapt to each situation that they found themselves in along with the ridiculous ability of both TJ Reid and Richie Hogan in the forwards as well as the likes of JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrell in the backs means that Kilkenny’s 2014 All-Ireland winning side are truly one of the greats of the last decade.
2. Limerick – 2020
The utter dominance that Limerick showed in last year’s championship was quite frankly unlike anything seen since Kilkenny at their best under Brian Cody. The stranglehold that they had not just over their opponents, but over the entire championship, was frightening and their performances and results were far superior to that of the 2018 All-Ireland winning version.
To put their superiority into perspective, only one team came within a score of Limerick throughout the championship and they retained their league and Munster titles along with reclaiming the Liam McCarthy Cup. Not every team on this list were the best in the country the year they won the All-Ireland. Others were unable to get anywhere near the summit after their success.
This Limerick team took a clean sweep of league, provincial and All-Ireland, something that is very rare in the modern era. While many are quick to rush in their proclamation of a new age of dominance from a team that wins an All-Ireland, surely Limerick are best placed to sustain their success in the coming years unless something out of left field occurs.
Their championship campaign began with a Munster quarter-final on October 25 that also doubled as the league final which had fallen foul of the coronavirus pandemic. The improvement in Limerick from their 2018 side is best described with their victory over Clare. It differed greatly from their Munster defeat to the Banner two years previous as they obliterated their fierce neighbours, amassing 0-36 in a ten-point win. With the league in the bag, their attention quickly turned to the provincial championship.
Limerick were outstanding as they laid down a marker in the semi-final. If they were not the clear favourites for the All-Ireland beforehand, a 3-23 – 2-17 defeat of All-Ireland champions Tipperary left no doubt as to who needed to be stopped if any other county was to win the All-Ireland. 2-6 from Aaron Gillane, 1-1 from Seamus Flanagan and a whole host of points by Graham Mulcahy, Tom Morrissey and Cian Lynch among others highlighted a significant aspect of this team that made them so formidable.
They had improved collectively in terms of their style of play and general cohesion, but the individual improvement in 2020 across the panel was a testament to the work that each player had put in during the offseason.
The next two games were the type of matches that only take place when the opposition plays with a large element of fear. They were not at their supreme best in a 0-25 – 0-21 win over a valiant Waterford side. However, Limerick’s inability to really flow in the decider while also getting the win shows that they are a great side. Waterford were all too happy to stay within touching distance of Limerick for as long as possible without ever attempting the killer blow.
If Waterford had played against the same Limerick side wearing white shirts rather than their famous green ones, they would have sniffed their chance and completely committed to attacking the game. But the green jersey had instilled a fear in them that a handful of teams throughout history can claim to have ever been able to do. They coasted to victory without ever having to get out of third gear.
The All-Ireland semi-final was a carve and copy of the clash with Waterford. In a repeat of the 2018 All-Ireland final against Galway, Limerick again could not manage to reach their optimal level. However, it did not matter as the Treaty continued to take their points and eventually saw the game out by 0-27 – 0-24. There isn’t much to analyse from this game. The forwards were efficient as always. The backs provided swift and quality ball into the forwards and the whole team generally functioned well. It was fear that held Galway back and Limerick won on reputation to a certain extent. They were back in the All-Ireland final.
The final was a repeat of the Munster decider as the Treaty faced off against the Déise. In one of the most one-sided All-Ireland finals in recent memory, Limerick put in their best performance of they year to see off Waterford and claim a second All-Ireland title in three years. They failed to find the net for the fourth time that winter but that was irrelevant as they marched to a 0-30 – 0-19 win.
Looking back, it was probably the most uneventful All-Ireland win of the last ten years. The reason for that is more to do with new heights that Limerick had reached rather than the inadequacies of their opponents. They strolled to victory and are in pole position to add to their nine All-Ireland titles in the years to come.
1. Kilkenny – 2011
Simply the best. This Kilkenny side largely consisted of the same players that had won every All-Ireland from 2006 -2009. What makes this win so impressive however, is the 2010 defeat. In 2011 Kilkenny had to find the hunger to go again despite falling agonisingly short of a historic five-in-a-row. The easy decision would have been to procrastinate and linger on their heartbreak from a year earlier. They made a different choice and somehow managed to find the hunger to come back for more after such a bitter setback makes Kilkenny’s 2011 team the best of the last decade.
The championship began perfectly with a 1-15 – 1-26 triumph away to Wexford. Two younger members of the panel in Richie Hogan and TJ Reid added fresh legs and a stern challenge to the established players in the team as they racked up 1-04 between them.
The Leinster final against Dublin was equally comfortable. A 4-17 -1-15 scoreline showed that Kilkenny were returning to their best. 1-02 each from Eoin Larkin and Michael Rice as well as 1-09 from Ballyhale Shamrocks sharpshooter Henry Shefflin were highlights from yet another dull and lob sided Leinster final. It was clear that Leinster was far from a battleground for Brian Cody’s side and that improvement would be necessary if they were to beat the best that Munster had to offer.
Two goals from Richie Hogan and two points from another young player in Colin Fennelly was enough to see off Waterford in the semi-final. The inclusion of the new players helped to raise everyone’s game and rejuvenated a squad that could have fallen flat following the disappointment of 2010.
The final was the third instalment of an epic trilogy between Kilkenny and Tipperary. Each fixture had something significant riding on it. The four-in-a-row in 2009 and the ‘drive for five’ being quashed one year later was almost as dramatic as the games themselves. However, there was an extra edge to 2011. Tipp knew a win would set them up for an era of dominance that would bring hurling in the county to a new level. For Kilkenny, they could re-establish themselves as the best in the business. Everything was at stake.
Goals from Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly sent Kilkenny on their way to a 33rd All-Ireland crown in a game that is maybe appreciated more by the players who were involved than the watching public with JJ Delaney one of a number of players on both sides who said that this clash was the best game they ever played in. A 2-17 – 1-16 win was sweet revenge for the 2010 disappointment.
Their ability to halt a Tipperary side who were lining up a period of success as well as continuing to dispatch of decent sides such as Waterford and Dublin with ease shows why this Kilkenny team is not just the best of the decade, but arguably the greatest team in the history of the game.