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.
There was very little between the Kilkenny class of 2012 and that of two years later. The main reason that the 2014 champions get the nod is nothing to do with being superior to the 2012 side. Simply put, they had tougher tests to pass than two years previous and for that, they sit above the 2012 team.
Having said all that, they could not have asked for an easier start! A home tie on a Saturday night in Nowlan Park against a desperate Offaly side was exactly the type of game any team would wish for to get their championship season started. After a dismal year in 2013, where Kilkenny were eliminated at the quarter-final stage, there were murmurings that some of the Kilkenny stalwarts from the Cody era were too far down the road. One of those mentioned was Eoin Larkin but the James Stephens clubman quickly dispelled the myths of retirement when he put in a man of the match performance, scoring 2-04 to help ease Kilkenny through to a Leinster semi-final showdown with Galway.
A 5-32 – 1-18 victory at home to Offaly was never going to be enough to prove that Kilkenny were back to their best. They knew how important the Leinster semi-final was with their biggest provincial rivals, not just to make a return to the Leinster final but also to send a message that they were still serious contenders for the big prize. On a warm Sunday afternoon in O’Connor Park, the two sides played out the best game of the championship to date. There is so much to say about this gem of a match but the best way to sum it up is to talk about the game from the 63rd minute onwards.
Leading by ten points, Kilkenny had one-eye on a Leinster final date with Dublin. But three goals, two from Conor Cooney and a penalty from Joe Canning drew Galway level with the final whistle a matter of moments away. Then, royalty took centre stage. ‘The King’ Henry Shefflin scored a sensational point from the left-hand touchline to put Kilkenny one-point up before his apparent heir to the throne Joe Canning responded with an equally sensational point from the opposite side of the pitch to force the game into a replay on a score of Galway 5-16 – 3-22 Kilkenny.
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The replay took place in the same location but there was a vastly different outcome, much to the delight of Brian Cody and his players. TJ Reid, who was quickly taking over from Shefflin as the main man in the team, backed up his 1-08 from the first tie with 2-11 in the replay. With Reid’s firepower and the ever-classy Richie Hogan pulling the strings from midfield, Kilkenny proved too much for Galway as they deservedly won by eight points, 1-17 – 3-19.
The Leinster final was nothing short of a walk in the park as Kilkenny tacked on point after point to win the Leinster title for the first time since 2011. A 0-24 – 1-09 victory over Dublin is not something that Kilkenny fans would usually get excited about, but a strong defensive performance tied in with some much-needed silverware (by Kilkenny’s lofty standards) put the Cats in a strong position to bring the Liam McCarthy Cup back to Noreside along with the Bob O’Keeffe Cup. That task would prove far more difficult than expected.
It was Kilkenny’s semi-final win against Limerick that gives them the edge over the 2012 team. Whereas the 2012 side couldn’t cope with the intensity that Galway brought to the Leinster final, the Cats showed the true hallmark of champions to overcome a Limerick side that brought even more energy and boldness than Galway had two years before.
Kilkenny somehow stood up to everything Limerick had to throw at them and were still standing come the final whistle. In what was a relatively low scoring affair, due in part to the astonishingly wet conditions that the game was played in, goals from Richie Hogan and Richie Power either side of half-time were enough for Kilkenny to advance on a score of 2-13 – 0-17. It was a game that was an almost complete contrast to the shootouts that Kilkenny had won up until that point in the season.
That is what really stands out from this Kilkenny side. Much like the great Cody sides of the past, they were capable of winning whatever style of game they were embroiled in. Not only were they able to win in different fashions, but they also relished it. Whether it be a battle in winter-like conditions or the most beautiful game of hurling to ever take place (we’re almost there!), Kilkenny managed to thrive in both or anything in between. If that is not a sign of a great team, then nothing is.
And so, we come to the most beautiful game of hurling to ever take place. The 2014 All-Ireland final once again pitted together the two teams that dominated their generation, Kilkenny and Tipperary. There is so much to say about Kilkenny’s 3-22 – 1-28 draw with Tipperary in the third consecutive All-Ireland final that failed to provide a winner. Richie Power rolling back the years to score 2-1. His namesake Richie Hogan putting in a masterful display of skill and leadership as he all but cemented his place as hurler of the year (an award that he would eventually collect in 2014). TJ Reid firing into the net at the Hill 16 end.
That was just Kilkenny, and there was so much more to mention that would require an article of its own. Of course, the game is remembered mainly for Hawkeye’s last-minute clarification that John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer long-range free had gone marginally wide, a decision that still hurts deeply for Tipperary supporters. The only true justice that this game can be given is this: if this was your first time to watch a game of hurling and you were bored for even one second of such a pulsating tie, then hurling is most definitely not the sport for you.
The replay saw Kilkenny add a new string to their bow. The one criticism of this Kilkenny side throughout the championship was that they were not in complete control of their games. Limerick had managed to draw them into a dogfight in the knowledge that they didn’t have the firepower to compete with Kilkenny in an open game.
In the first game with Tipperary, Eamon O’Shea’s team got exactly what they wanted as the game became a nightmare for the backs and a dream for the forwards of both sides. Kilkenny showed their mettle to avoid defeat on both occasions, but a replay played in the same vein as the first clash would almost certainly end in tears for the Cats. Brian Cody showed his true greatness for the umpteenth time as he made two crucial changes to his side. Pádraig Walsh and John Power both started the game in an attempt to add more physicality to the Kilkenny line-up.
It was a masterstroke from Cody as both players contributed heavily to a tenth All-Ireland victory for both Cody and Henry Shefflin. Power scored 1-1, as did his brother Richie, to help fire Kilkenny to a 2-17 – 2-14 victory. A more pragmatic approach that focused on not allowing space for Tipperary forwards and pouring numbers into the midfield area to cut off Tipperary’s supply lines had worked a treat.
Their unparalleled ability to adapt to each situation that they found themselves in along with the ridiculous ability of both TJ Reid and Richie Hogan in the forwards as well as the likes of JJ Delaney, Brian Hogan and Jackie Tyrell in the backs means that Kilkenny’s 2014 All-Ireland winning side are truly one of the greats of the last decade.