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.
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.
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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?