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.
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.