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 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.