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.
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.