Hurling & Camogie

Unstoppable Limerick make it four-in-a-row against punch-drunk Kilkenny

John Kiely celebrates winning the Liam MacCarthy for the fourth time in a row Picture: Seamus Loughran
John Kiely celebrates winning the Liam MacCarthy for the fourth time in a row Picture: Seamus Loughran

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final: Kilkenny 2-15 Limerick 0-30

FOUR-IN-A-ROW All-Ireland champions and the greatest hurling team that’s ever played the game. Anyone arguing the odds is probably arguing for the sake of it.

Yesterday in Croke Park, the Limerick hurlers followed in the historic footsteps of Kilkenny (2006-09) and Cork’s (1941-44) four-in-a-row teams.

The manner in how they achieved this amazing feat will live long in the memory. Has there ever been a more complete second half display than what Limerick served up yesterday?

No wonder their manager John Kiely absolutely let go and danced the mother of all jigs on the steps of Hogan when he clasped the Liam MacCarthy for the fifth time in seven years.

In each of those All-Ireland victories, Limerick have produced some astonishing performances.

They played a dream final in the 2021 decider against Cork and for large swathes of last year’s All-Ireland final win over Kilkenny, they were awesome.

No-one will ever forget Gearoid Hegarty’s first half display 12 months ago and the ruthless way they saw off the Cats in the closing stages that brought the curtain down on Brian Cody’s imposing reign.

But yesterday’s victory felt more fulfilling again. Just when you thought Limerick couldn't reach any new heights, they found another level that was bordering on the superhuman.

Midfielder Cian Lynch was the joyous alchemist. Everything he touched yesterday turned to gold for Limerick. The man with the magic wrists must have had a hand in 70 per cent of Limerick's scores in this final.

Troubled in the early stages by Tom Phelan, Diarmaid Byrnes settled into his peerless stride and proved once again that there isn't a half-back in the country to touch him for consistency and producing the goods on the biggest days.

Take a bow Kyle Hayes. He's the type of modern hurler who could play anywhere and inspire.

Pushed into a much deeper role in 2023, Hayes was magnificent in every aspect of this final – winning dirty ball, counter-attacking with pace and showing unbelievable vision.

And while Aaron Gillane was enjoying a memorable tussle with Huw Lawlor on the edge of the Kilkenny square, Peter Casey cut loose against Mikey Butler and hit five staggering points from play in the second half and was probably only eclipsed for the man-of-the-match award by Lynch.

In the last two All-Ireland finals, Kilkenny have proven to be Limerick’s toughest opponent.

If anybody was going to topple the champions, it would have to be Kilkenny. They came within two points of Limerick last year.

With Derek Lyng giving the Cats renewed impetus on the sideline in 2023, it was felt they had more than a puncher’s chance of wrestling the silverware away from the champions.

And for the opening 42 minutes of yesterday’s pulsating All-Ireland final, Kilkenny were outstanding. They'd brought their 'A' game to the party.

Limerick shouldn’t have been surprised by the intensity their rivals played with in those opening exchanges.

The Limerick backs didn’t have room to breathe as the Kilkenny forwards swarmed them like ravenous dogs. The champions looked spooked and unlike the 2022 final, it was the Cats who got off to the better start.

Eoin Cody raced onto Conor Fogarty’s high punt on top of the Limerick full-back line and lashed the ball home on 10 minutes.

Could this be the end of Limerick’s incredible reign?

Phelan was having the game of his life at number 10. Paddy Deegan had unnerved Hegarty on the wing and Lawlor was more than breaking even off Gillane.

Cody was causing all sorts of bother up front for Kilkenny but the most impressive aspect of the Leinster champions’ play was the insatiable work-rate of their midfielders and half-forwards.

But the big imponderable was whether Kilkenny could sustain the dramatic pace and intensity for the entire 70-plus minutes. The answer, as it turned out, was no.

The underdogs led 1-9 to 0-9 at the break but should have been further ahead.

For Kilkenny to take the cup home, they needed virtually everything to go over Limerick’s bar.

TJ Reid missed a gilt-edged free just before half-time and Cody was unlucky not to bag his second major with a low, angled drive that whistled just wide of Nickie Quaid’s left-hand upright.

And even though Byrnes successfully launched two long-range rockets at the start of the second half, Paddy Deegan powered into Limerick’s net on 42 minutes after brilliant approach play involving Richie Reid and Phelan.

Deegan’s major pushed Kilkenny’s lead out to five points (2-10 to 0-11) – but what followed will be talked about for as long as hurling is played.

Deegan’s goal was meant to be the platform for a Kilkenny victory. It turned out to be Limerick’s.

Between the 43rd and 55th minutes, John Kiely’s men produced arguably their best period of hurling under his watch.

Limerick proceeded to outscore their rivals 0-10 to 0-1 to forge a four-point lead going down the stretch.

It was the kind of tsunami no team recovers from. There seemed to be a magnetic field where everything Limerick launched at Kilkenny’s goalposts went over.

Peter Casey showed astonishing accuracy, hitting five wonderful points off Mikey Butler and later Tommy Walsh.

Hegarty swung over a couple of beauties too and Byrnes never missed an opportunity to drill another nail into Kilkenny’s coffin from ridiculous distances.

TJ Reid, Adrian Mullen and John Donnelly put up token resistance, but that’s all it was.

Kilkenny brought their best to the table, but Limerick salivated at the challenge and destroyed their rivals with an exhibition of power and skill.

Their half-back line of Byrnes, O'Donoghue and Hayes completely smothered Kilkenny's attack.

The Cats couldn't buy a break.

Each time Eoin Murphy launched the ball down field it came straight back at him.

In the last 10 minutes, Limerick outscored Kilkenny 0-10 to 0-1 and were beaten into submission by an incredible green machine.

After yesterday's final, few will bet against them making it five-in-a-row in 2024.

Kilkenny: E Murphy (0-1 free); M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh; C Fogarty, R Reid (0-1), P Deegan (1-1); J Donnelly (0-1); A Mullen (0-1); T Phelan (0-3), M Keoghan, W Walsh; B Ryan, TJ Reid (0-7, 0-6 frees, 0-1 ‘65), E Cody (1-0) Subs: P Walsh for C Fogarty (h/t), A Murphy for W Walsh (48), C Kenny for B Ryan (54), C Buckley for T Walsh (64), R Hogan for T Phelan (65)

Limerick: N Quaid; M Casey, D Morrissey, B Nash (0-1); D Byrnes (0-8, 0-7 frees), W O’Donoghue (0-1), K Hayes (0-1); D O’Donovan (0-1), C Lynch (0-1); G Hegarty (0-2), D Reidy (0-2), T Morrissey (0-1); A Gillane (0-5, 0-3 frees), S Flanagan, P Casey (0-5) Subs: C O’Neill (0-2) for T Morrissey (55), Graeme Mulcahy for S Flanagan (64), C Boylan for G Hegarty (65), B Murphy for D O’Donovan (72)

Yellow cards: W O’Donoghue (13), D Byrnes (16)

Referee: J Keenan (Wicklow)