Limerick 1-31 Kilkenny 2-26
All-Ireland champions Limerick produced another unshakeable finish to record the county’s first three-in-a-row. They needed to. Unlike the last two finals, this was not a contest played for artistic impression in the second half.
It was a nerve-jangling scrap on a sun-scorched afternoon, a match in which the spectre of defeat was not exorcised until the final, sharp blasts on referee Colm Lyons’ whistle.
In a dramatic second half, Kilkenny were never shaken off and ended up posting the highest score in history by defeated finalists.
For a team used to blitzing their challengers in previous years, this season has been a paradigm shift by Limerick. Having battled through the Munster round-robin format that they hadn’t previously managed to negotiate unbeaten – they became the first team to do so – they had also been pushed to the brink by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Taking on a fresh and apparently transformed Kilkenny, Limerick had every cause for concern. Take away the two hurlers who created an inferno for Cork in the first half of last year’s final, Cian Lynch and Peter Casey. Lynch was in dry dock most of the season and missed this. Casey came in for 20 minutes but understandably couldn’t pick up the threads of his A game.
If that wasn’t enough of a burden, the champions’ biggest performers in attack, the inside forwards Aaron Gillane and Séamus Flanagan were both subdued. Huw Lawlor was terrific marking Gillane, tight as a limpet and not allowing his opponent any room.
From the fifth minute when he intercepted a pop pass into Flanagan, the O’Loughlin Gaels full-back was a pillar in his team’s defence, completing a great championship.
He had good support. Tommy Walsh did a decent job curtailing Flanagan and Mikey Carey started very well before Tom Morrissey began to get a grip.
Limerick therefore needed to find inspiration from somewhere and 2020 Hurler of the Year Gearóid Hegarty stepped up, along with his half-forward colleagues Kyle Hayes and Morrissey.
Just as he had done in the Munster final, Hegarty produced a spectacular goal, fastening on to the break from Nickie Quaid’s puck-out and moving in, from right to left before firing past Eoin Murphy. Some of his points were astonishing
The scores mounted and the comfortable win, envisaged by some, began to take shape. All Limerick’s markers were positive; shooting was accurate and they were defending with snap and energy. The high ball details weren’t one way but Kilkenny needed to be doing better and even the rucks were breaking heavily to the champions.
At right wing-back, Diarmaid Byrnes maintained the reliability of his season. A formidable presence in defence and a great free striker, he has lost the intermittent delivery of previous seasons and this match underlined his value with four dead balls – three frees and a ‘65 – flying over at important junctures as well as one from play. There were no speculative thrashes: he had 0-5 and no wides.
After a nervous start, Kyle Hayes came into the match. He is so strong under the ball and when the team was under pressure, his availability and security in possession was gold standard in a frantic second half. He finished with 0-4 from play as did left wing Tom Morrissey.
Over the course of the three-in-a-row sequence, Limerick’s half forwards – Hayes at centre forward on Sunday instead of Lynch – have scored a cumulative 3-37.
Kilkenny fought every step of the way. In a first half when Limerick were in the most menacing of form and registering it on the scoreboard, the Leinster champions somehow clung on to the coat tails of the match. They showed great nerve in that all of their chances needed to count and, but for a couple of wides, did with careless turnovers being nailed.
TJ Reid, apart from one careless wide in play, hit a succession of frees and won vital possession in the air, setting up chances for others.
It was, however, a match straining to get away from Kilkenny. They trailed by six on four occasions in the first half but always pulled themselves back into view, like a labouring cyclist who refuses to let the leader disappear from view.
At the start of the second half, Hayes and Gillane pushed the margin to six again but what unfolded didn’t just reduce the margin but bring the whole match into contest.
Walter Walsh came on for the second half and caught a couple of balls, turning one into an assist for Billy Ryan to get Kilkenny’s first goal. Limerick steadied and rebuilt a lead.
Kilkenny twice got on to their shoulder but couldn’t kick on despite striking psychological blows. First, in the 47th minute after Reid had set up another attack, catching and passing to Eoin Cody, whose flick across goal was buried by Martin Keoghan. Replacement John Donnelly hoisted an immediate equaliser.
Kilkenny had momentum but the champions replied with three points to rebuild another lead, including Byrnes hitting a free from nearly 100 metres.
For all the talk of Limerick’s bench, it was Kilkenny who got scores from all of their replacements, the most lustily cheered coming from former hurler of the year Richie Hogan, whose 63rd minute point levelled the match again.
If Limerick had a purple passage, a period in which they could say they put this to bed it was the magnificent response to Hogan’s score. Five points: Hayes, sub Cathal O’Neill, triaged by Hawk-Eye, which had earlier ruled out a point by David Reidy, another from replacement Conor Boylan, a free by Gillane after Hayes had been fouled and the piece de resistance, a point from his own ‘65 by Hegarty.
Kilkenny did raise the last three flags but the match concluded with that most alarming of margins, two points, on the board.
Limerick made history and didn’t do it the easy way but as proved again and again this momentous season, no one beats them down the finishing straight.
LIMERICK: N Quaid; S Finn, B Nash, M Casey; D Byrnes (0-5, three frees, one ‘65), D Hannon (capt; 0-1), D Morrissey (0-1); W O’Donoghue, D O’Donovan; G Hegarty (1-5), K Hayes (0-4), T Morrissey (0-4); A Gillane (0-7, four frees), S Flanagan (0-2), G Mulcahy.
Subs: P Casey for Mulcahy (49 mins), D Reidy for O’Neill (52), C Boylan (0-1) for Flanagan (60), C O’Neill (0-1) for T Morrissey (64).
KILKENNY: E Murphy; M Butler, H Lawlor, T Walsh (0-1); M Carey (0-1), R Reid (capt; 0-1), P Deegan (0-2); C Kenny, C Browne; TJ Reid (0-9, nine frees), P Walsh (0-2), B Ryan (1-0); A Mullen (0-3), M Keoghan (1-1), E Cody (0-1).
Subs: W Walsh (0-1) for Kenny (h-t), J Donnelly (0-1) for P Walsh (47 mins), D Blanchfield (0-1) for Browne (53), R Hogan (0-1) for Cody (59), A Murphy (0-1) for Deegan (72).
Referee: Colm Lyons (Cork).