Unstoppable Gearóid Hegarty is Robocop crossed with Harry Potter

Limerick’s man of the match has been top scorer from play in three All-Ireland finals in a row

You look at Gearóid Hegarty and think he shouldn’t be this good. Not at hurling, anyway. And certainly not at the sort of hurling he is good at. A rugby player, yes. A Gaelic footballer, sure. A bespoke cleaner employed to dust the tops of wardrobes in musty old stately homes, you betcha.

But a hurler? Okay, yes, you look at him and presume that such a chunk of pure distilled man will have his place in the game. Particularly today’s game, where it seemingly takes little short of decapitation to give away a free. But a scoring hurler? A scoreboard-whizzing machine? Surely not.

Well, here’s a thing. Gearóid Hegarty, with his lumberjack build and his dustpan hands, that Gearóid Hegarty has been top scorer from play in three All-Ireland finals in a row. To his 1-5 here, you can add his 2-2 last year against Cork and his 0-7 in the December tundra final of 2020. That’s an unfeasible 3-14 from play — Aaron Gillane (1-10) and Tom Morrissey (0-12) are the only other Limerick players to break double figures across the three games.

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This should take a bit of explaining. It’s not like he’s hard to miss, after all. It’s not like other teams don’t plan for him. Kilkenny sent Paddy Deegan after him here, which is a compliment in itself. Deegan is the spiritual leader of the Kilkenny defence, pretty much the conscience of the defensive unit. First man over the top, no retreat, no surrender.

Yet he couldn’t lay a finger on Hegarty here. The game was barely four minutes old when a long Nickie Quaid free dropped on the edge of the D with 11 Kilkenny and Limerick players colliding in search of their first All-Ireland final touch of the ball. In the midst of the carnage, Hegarty loped in and flicked the ball up like a pickpocket in a riot. He rode a tackle from Richie Reid and arrowed his shot into Eoin Murphy’s top corner.

How can this be? How can a man who runs like he’s stomping down the Giant’s Causeway in temper still do his work — the work that matters most in the game — with an embroiderer’s touch? Hegarty had 1-3 on the board by half-time and each score was an advert for the kind of skills that usually get you called a knacky hurler. You’d venture it’s a while since anyone called him that.

He took a pass from Will O’Donoghue in a little traffic on 16 minutes but all it took for him to get out of it was a little show-and-go and the ball was splitting the posts. Deegan got on possession a while later and took a shot the dropped short and little did he know he was already in negative equity — Hegarty had floated over to the other wing and Quaid was able to pick him out at his ease. His third was maybe the score of the day, a stunning piece of skill to bring the ball in and another strike soaring from the Hogan Stand sideline.

We pressed John Kiely on it afterwards. He sees him all the time, since he was a footballer back in the mid-2010s. What words would he wrap around a display like this? “It’s hard for me to assess that now to be honest with you, because I don’t know the exact stats of it. I don’t know how many points he scored.”

He scored 1-5, John.

“Ah, 1-5 okay, that’s a decent return,” Kiely smiled. “Gearóid was one of the guys that would have been very disappointed with his performance in the semi-final. He’d have been the first to put his hand up and say that. He was very honest in his work during the course of the last two weeks in training.

“Really, really honest and just led the charge. He just knocked down and didn’t wallow in disappointment. He focused in on what he could do today and I think that’s reflected in his performance today. There was a lot of fantastic performances on both sides there today. Really fantastic performances on both sides.

“I’m delighted for him because he’s had a couple of finals that he mightn’t have been altogether happy with — ‘18 he wasn’t happy with. So I’m delighted he got that performance there today out of himself.”

In the second half Hegarty was more of a nuts and bolts kind of presence. He added another two points, including Limerick’s last one to push them five clear in injury-time. But mostly he went around doing scrub work. Winning a puck-out for Kyle Hayes to score Limerick’s first after the restart. Two back-to-back assists for Tom Morrissey points. Another puck-out gathered in to lay on a score for David Reidy.

When it was all over Hegarty stood with his arms outstretched and roared at the sky. RoboCop crossed with Harry Potter. Unstoppable, somehow.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times