By David McDonnell
I’ll start off with an admission.
For my money, this Limerick hurling team is the greatest side to grace the game of hurling.
And after what has been a most entertaining championship, for the fourth year in succession it is again the men in green, who were raising the Liam McCarthy Cup under the Hogan Stand.
They say you never meet a poor bookie and even when Kilkenny led by six points early in the second half of the All-Ireland final, Limerick were still favourites to win. I know becuase I checked as they champions then proceeded to blow the doors off in a scintillating display where they scored 21 second half points.
With 10 minutes to go, the game was over as a contest and it had that eerily familiar feel as they had also whipped up a second half hurricane against Galway in the semis.
This Limerick side have now become the third hurling team in history to win four titles in a row. This year they had to do it the hard way as all year the other contenders played their best games of the year against the champions. Cork were short by a point, Tipperary earned a draw and Clare overcame them by a point in the Munster round robin before Clare tipped them by a point in the Munster final. In every one of those games, they trailed at half time before tipping the scales in their favour in the second half.
Limerick are a side with incredible hurling ability coupled with a boatload of experience in getting over the line in tight games. Back in 2018, when Limerick won their first All-ireland title since 1973, very few people would have predicted just how dominant they would become across the hurling landscape.
Of the 15 players that ended the famine in 2018, 12 were on the field in the 2023 decider with the other three Declan Hannon, Brian Finn and Ritchie English all missing out through injury.
Still the team has a youthful streak running through the side with Kyle Hayes and Seamus Flanagan both 25 and man of the match in the final Peter Casey, at 26, still with their best years ahead of them. Underage phenom Cathal O’Neill was the best young hurler in the championship this season is under 21 and with the talents of Adam English and Shane O’Brien primed to be the next two off the production line, this Limerick side isn't going away any time soon.
So what makes this Limerick side great?
Number one for me is their high skill levels and one of the ways this team stands out from the rest is their ability to play the ball from defence through the lines of the field as their primary pattern of attack. Limerick are almost like a football team in how they can move the ball up the field.
Most of the teams in the country do not have this ability or are willing to risk getting turned over in their own half.
Secondly it is their decision making. There is no better side getting the ball accurately in front of their full forward line to create one-v-one matchups that are a nightmare to defend. This comes from brilliant coaching and they have the inside forwards to do the damage.
Thirdly is their size and physicality. They have huge men all over the field who can hurl and their half back line for the final two matches comprised of Diarmuid Byrnes, William O'Donoghue and Kyle Hayes. Both in the final and semi final they lorded the opposition's puckout in the second half of both games, which gave their team a platform to dominate.
Fourth is their half forward line of Gearoid Hegarty, Cian Lynch and Tom Morrissey. Earlier in the championship it was Morrissey who scored four or five points every game allied with a huge workload around the field. In the final, it was Lynch who conducted the Limerick attack when the need was greatest. It was the winning of the game as Kilkenny needed to be further ahead at the turn after playing with a strong wind advantage in the first half.
And I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Gillane, who is likely to take the Hurler of the Year honours later in the year.
They say you can’t win anything with a team of choirboys and there aren’t too many choirboys in this team. In the league this year, it seemed every week a Limerick player was out due to suspension but as the stakes got raised during the season their levels of discipline improved dramatically.
They are worthy champions and their brand of hurling is magnificent to watch. RIght now, it is difficult which team can make up the ground to unseat them from their throne.
There is not much difference between the next five or six contenders with Clare arguably best placed to do so.
They were the only side to win against Limerick in what was an epic Munster CHampionship, where record crowds filled stadiums across the province and it seemed every game went down to the wire.
Shane O’Donnell was in majestic form throughout the year and they have put Limerick to the pin of their collar a number of times in recent seasons. They would have made the final this season only for a ridiculous save from Kilkeneny’s Eoin Murphy at the death in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Tipperary improved significantly after a disastrous 2022 campaign. Liam Cahill had them motoring well throughout the Munster Championship and new finds Alan Tynan and Gearoid O’Connor added pace and physicality in their forwards. Their best performances of the campaign saw them draw with both Cork and Limerick in titanic contests. Still, they are short and it is hard to explain their poor showing against Galway against Henry Shefflin’s Galway side in the quarters. Still they look a side going places and if Liam Cahill can get a few players like Ciaran Connolly and Ger Browne off the injured list and introduce a young talent of Sean Keneally from the Under-20 side, Tipp could surprise a few teams next year.
It was a decent campaign for Galway who lost the Leisnter final when Cillian Buckley scored a last gasp goal for Kileknny. They went to beat Tipp more convincingly than the scoreline suggested and outhurled Limerick for 25 minutes in the semis. However, when Limerick raised the temperature in the second half, Galway couldn’t live with the champions.
Kilkenny remain seriously competitive and Eoin Cody is now their most dangerous forward. They still rely too much on the prowess of TJ Reid who will be 36 next summer. They have had a successful season making both the League and All-Ireland finals but Derek Lyng will need to unearth some new players in the club season to bridge the gap to Limerick.
Cork were very competitive all year and had they scored one extra point against Tipp, Clare or Limerick in the Championship this season, then they would have got out of Munster. Their best performance of the summer was against Limerick, where they finished a point adrift at the final whistle.
Dublin, Waterford and Wexford all had seasons to forget and are better than what they showed in this year’s championship.
For my Team of the Season, I went with: Eoin Murphy (Kilkenny); Padraic Mannion (Galway), Huw Lawlor (Kilkenny), Barry Nash (Limerick); Diarmuid Byrnes (Limerick), Daithi Burke (Galway), Kyle Hayes (Limerick); William O’Donaghue (Limerick), Darragh O’Donavan (Limerick); Shane O’Donnell (Clare) TJ Reid (Kilkenny), Tom Morrissy (Limerick); Aaron Gillane (Limerick), Conor Whelan (Galway), Eoin Cody (Kilkenny).