Nicky English: Limerick show exceptional desire to take a first three-in-a-row

Any drop-off in the champions’ performance levels or self-belief would have been punished by Kilkenny

This was one of the best All-Ireland finals I have ever seen and, fittingly, it created history for Limerick. To win the three-in-a-row in such circumstances was an extraordinary achievement. They were challenged all the way home by Kilkenny and at the very end, the margin was shrinking and you wondered could the match possibly lurch once more.

In the end, though this was a deserved win for John Kiely’s team. They had to achieve it in the absence of Cian Lynch, one of the greatest hurlers I have watched and also with Peter Casey, another hero of last year’s final, just coming back from injury. He was understandably short of his best and a shot that would have flown over in the 2021 final, drifted left in 2022.

Unlike in 2019 when Kilkenny knocked them out of their stride with physicality and aggression, Limerick were ready for the onslaught this time and didn’t cough up possession. They started like a whirlwind. Gearóid Hegarty unveiled the full force of his physical power and considerable hurling to spectacular effect.

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His goal was typical. You could see that he felt it was on even before he caught the ball. He’s a superb athlete but very few hurlers could have taken on and scored that goal, and the few that could aren’t six-foot-five.

Early on, all the pressure came from Limerick. Hegarty was driving it, Diarmaid Byrnes was hitting the frees and at one stage caught a ball over Eoin Cody and belted it back over the bar. Midfield was on top, Will O’Donoghue all but impassable.

Forceful opening

I had always thought that Limerick would win this final but I hadn’t been expecting such a forceful opening display from them. Doubts about their energy levels after a demanding Munster campaign were never allowed to be realised.

It was their best display since this unusual championship opened for business three brief months previously on Easter Sunday. Coincidentally, it was also Hegarty and Byrnes who did most to get Limerick up and running that day as well.

Beside Hegarty, Kyle Hayes was again fantastic on the big day. His size and engine are phenomenal but he’s also such a skillful player and made that count with four points.

Yet Kilkenny were still standing, hanging in there and staying in touch. TJ Reid was converting his frees and their defence after the early blitz were getting to grips with their task.

I have always believed since seeing him in UCD that Huw Lawlor would turn into an excellent intercounty player and he was exceptional in limiting the very real threat of Aaron Gillane and with Tommy Walsh and Mikey Butler also weighing in, Kilkenny started to shut down the threat of the Limerick full forwards.

By half-time, Limerick were clearly the better team but weren’t leading by as much as they should have been. After all the hurling they had done, four points was an underwhelming margin.

The worry for the champions was that Kilkenny had looked a lot fresher in the semi-finals. Would they raise the tempo and make Limerick regret they hadn’t made more of their dominance?

Psychological challenge

I think the win was especially commendable because when Kilkenny came with those second-half goals, the psychological challenge was immense.

Had Limerick been in any way off-form or harbouring any doubts or insecurities about the match, those would have been found out and ruthlessly exploited.

It has been a feature of their play that they close out matches well. Back in April, when Waterford shocked them with the two late goals to close the deficit, the pressure was very much on but they responded the better and won.

A fortnight back, Galway took the lead and Limerick fought hard to get it back and then finished strongly in an All-Ireland semi-final. It’s not just their ability, which is undoubted but their self-belief, which has been impregnable even missing their most important player.

They were under the persistent pressure of not being able to shake off Kilkenny on the scoreboard. Even when the late scoring burst put them five ahead in injury-time, the contest was never settled.

Kilkenny trimmed it by three and, perhaps if David Blanchfield had opted to drop the ball in rather than take his point, they might have conjured up something. Then again, TJ Reid earlier tried to improvise a goal when taking the point might have been the better option.

Still, Kilkenny lived with some of the best hurling Limerick have done this year and you’d have to wonder what other team could have survived that assault in the first half.

Ultimately, this was a well-deserved three-in-a-row for an exceptional team of players most of whom I remember coming through in their Fitzgibbon days with those really good Limerick college teams.

They are well-coached and well-organised but also have an outstanding manager, who’s an honourable individual. They have set new standards.