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.
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.
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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.
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