All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final
By PJ Cunningham
This year’s new hurling format has thrown up arguably the greatest ever championship with epic encounters, gripping comebacks and outrageous performances sprinkled across a summer of high frenzy and often higher drama.
The new structure has ushered in a new era where there can no longer be a “lucky champion” collecting Liam MacCarthy again.
Limerick are a case in point as they had to beat four powerhouses of the game – Tipperary, Cork, Kilkenny and Galway – to bridge a 45-year gap back to their most recent success in 1973.
It could be argued that on that occasion against an injury-ridden Kilkenny that the Treaty side was very lucky to meet a team shorn of such star players as Eddie Keher, Kieran Purcell, Eamonn Morrissey and Jim Treacy.
When the two met again 12 months later, a full-strength Cats side annihilated their opponents to gain a quick and sweet revenge on a 3-19 to 1-13 scoreline.
This year, Limerick had to play eight games to win the All Ireland title while if Galway had managed back-to-back victories, it would have taken nine encounters, including two draws, to get that far.
John Kiely has put a steel into the men in green and white which wasn’t there in the five occasions since 1973 when Limerick have fallen at the final hurdle.
One of those occasions – against Offaly in 1994 – burned deeply into the Limerick psyche when they went from a five point lead (2-13 to 1-11) with five minutes remaining to end up losing by six points (3-16 to 2-13).
That nightmare scenario flickered across every green and white mind in Croke Park and around the world on Sunday afternoon in the dramatic late strait when Limerick’s seemingly unbeatable eight point lead two minutes from the end of normal time was eroded down to the minimum.
And that could have been even more dramatic if Galway’s talisman Joe Canning had landed a free adjacent to his own 45 with the last puck of the match.
This time the gods that had so cruelly engineered the collapse against Offaly 24 years ago, favoured the Treaty as Canning’s attempt to get the sliotar to travel the 95 metres came up four or five metres short.
Even then with referee James Owens not blowing the final whistle, Limerick had to secure possession and come out of defence through sub Tom Condon. When the final whistle eventually sounded, it must have been sweet music to the ears of a generation of hurling mad Limerick fans.
The fact that Galway finally roused themselves from a slumbering performance to score two goals and two points in the elongated eight plus minutes of added time significantly enhanced the spectacle in the minds of all who watched it.
Had the game petered out with a big Limerick victory, the 2018 final would have been labelled as a disappointing, one-sided affair.
Because of the electricity that flowed in the added time segment, both sets of supporters were gripped by the importance of every next ball that was fought for with renewed intensity by both sides.
Ollie Canning, Joe’s brother and now a Sky pundit, said he had seen his brother shoot scores from placed balls from the distance he attempted with the last free of the game but felt it was just outside his compass on the Croke Park stage.
His summation was that a draw was the best Galway could have hoped for on the day was an accurate reflection for in truth, the swashbuckling maroon players of 12 months ago failed to turn up in the numbers required to deliver a title of this magnitude.
Only Canning junior, skipper David Burke and the always brilliant Padraig Mannion hit anything like their true form as Limerick’s young generation stepped up to the mark to play the game of their lives.
If you were to try to define the difference in the attitude between green and maroon teams, it came down to one word – hunger.
Galway’s appetite after so many years in the doldrums had been sated somewhat last year when they edged to victory against Waterford.
On Sunday, they tried to alter the stakes by looking to emulate Cyril Farrell’s 87-88 double winning team by also completing back-to-back All-Ireland wins.
Yet that slogan didn’t burn with quite the same ferocity as their desire to end the 30-year famine last year.
Limerick on the other hand came with an insatiable drive fuelled by a long famine. They also developed a mind-set in the group that they were going to win – no matter what.
They showed that resilience against Kilkenny late in that game when Richie Hogan’s goal seemed like ending their challenge for another year.
However it was a Limerick man, Tom Morrissey who caught the subsequent puck out to score a game defining point and it was the Limerick team which fired over four points in a row to show their mettle and leave Kilkenny as the vanguished for once in a tight situation.
On Sunday most commentators were expecting Galway to do what they did against Kilkenny and Clare by establishing a big early lead; they didn’t because Limerick were so full of energy that the holders were actually doing well to stay in the game.
After an early blitz of Limerick points, Galway pulled back to lead before Graeme Mulcahy’s bizarre goal (the softest goal ever in a Croke Park final) helped to give his side a four-point half time advantage.
In fact the first half was destroyed of a lot of oxygen by poor shooting as both sides missed a number of easy chances. Limerick had a total of 11 first-half wides to Galway’s 10, which is another reason why the fervour of the game was sub-standard, buoyed only by the enthusiastic support of both sets of supporters.
Two of Limerick’s real surprise packages on the day were centre-forward Kyle Hayes and full forward Seamus Flanagan.
The former belied his 20 years to rule the airways with his catching ability against last year’s man of the match, Gearóid McInerney. He shot over three early second-half points – four in all – to push Limerick into a comfortable 1-15 to 0-10 ten minutes after the changeover.
Limerick are All-Ireland Hurling Champions for 2018! pic.twitter.com/D8FQR2gMYl
— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 19, 2018
With Flanagan causing all sorts of trouble for the Galway defence, the winners could have been out of sight if his scoring ability or link play was up to his ability to win primary possession. It wasn’t – still when he left the fray after 64 minutes, he could have been pleased with his afternoon’s work.
He got to the subs bench in time to see the real fireworks of the day from both sides in the course of another 15 minutes play, including added time of over nine minutes.
Like London buses, we had only seen one goal in over an hour and then four flashed before our vision in a matter of minutes.
When Tom Morrissey showed excellent stick work to record Limerick’s second and brilliant sub Shane Dowling added a third thanks to a cool head, many of the Galway crowd began making their way to the exits as a 3-15 to 0-16 scoreline seemed insurmountable with time now also a formidable foe.
Having stuttered like a car with dirty petrol all day, Galway finally seemed to find the high octane fuel that made them so formidable over the last two years.
Conor Whelan caught and despatched a class goal to give a little hope before Canning’s 21 metres free flew to the net like an exocet missile.
With Canning and Niall Burke weighing in with scores from frees and play, Galway suddenly were only a point in arreas until Mulcahy poached his side’s last score – the winning point as it turned out.
Canning landed a 65 to set up that monster attempt from the next parish which came up short.
Limerick: N Quaid; S Finn, M Casey, R English; D Byrnes (0-1), D Hannon (0-2), D Morrissey; D O’Donovan (0-1), C Lynch (0-1); G Hegarty, K Hayes (0-4), T Morrissey (1-1); A Gillane (0-3, 0-1f), S Flanagan (0-1), G Mulcahy (1-2). Subs: R McCarthy for Casey (48), S Dowling (1-0) for Hegarty (56), P Casey for Flanagan (64), W O’Donoghue for O’Donovan (67), T Condon for English (67).
Galway: J Skehill; A Tuohy, D Burke, J Hanbury; P Mannion (0-1), G McInerney, A Harte; J Coen, D Burke (0-3); J Cooney (0-3), J Canning (1-10, 1-5f, 0-2 ‘65s’) J Glynn; C Whelan (1-0), C Cooney, C Mannion. Subs: Niall Burke (0-1) for C Mannion (46), P Killeen for Hanbury (56), J Flynn for C Cooney (57), F Flannery for Skehill (61).
Referee: J Owens (Wexford).