THE LAST TIME nine All-Star awards were being handed out to one county in the wake of a hurling season was 2008.
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That was the year that Kilkenny’s golden generation turned in their most complete display, blowing away Waterford with an awesome showing on the biggest day in the hurling calendar.
It replicated the feat achieved by Kilkenny teams twice previously in 1983 and 2000. No other county has supplied that total of players to an All-Star selection until last night when Limerick matched that figure.
In a subjective awards scheme, it stands as a benchmark of excellence. In reaching it with nine winners, Limerick provide further evidence of the brilliance they served up in the 2020 campaign. It was a turbulent and fractured hurling year yet John Kiely’s team coped best of all to take all the major hurling prizes on offer as a collective before they landed these honours as individuals.
The 2020 All-Star XV is a Limerick-controlled unit and that feels fitting. They went three better than the 2018 edition, although last year was played out under different terms and conditions, less games meant less scope for debate in examining the claims of various players.
Five first-timers were rewarded from the Limerick ranks. If Gearoid Hegarty was the star turn in the country, then Nickie Quaid, Diarmaid Byrnes, Kyle Hayes and Tom Morrissey put in the type of seasons that captured their growing influences. There is a feel-good factor to Quaid’s recognition, a player who toiled during some murky times for Limerick hurling and also maintains a fantastic family sequence of All-Star number ones after his father Tommy and cousin Joe before him.
There were second awards for Dan Morrissey, a player who stepped up when entrusted with the firefighting mission after Limerick’s full-back issue emerged, along with Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane, who completed a brilliant personal night for the Patrickswell club.
The standard-bearer for Limerick is their number two Sean Finn, consolidating a spot he has held since 2018. His third successive award places him in the exalted company of Pat Hartigan, Joe McKenna and Gary Kirby, the only other Limerick hurlers to achieve that three-in-a-row, and is representative of his outstanding defensive play.
With one county providing two-thirds of the selection, there was not a huge amount left for the remaining to scrap over. Waterford suffered most on final days against Limerick in 2020 but stll got a trio of awards. Tadhg De Búrca’s year was rounded off a desperate note in tearing his cruciate ligament for the second time but his form was terrific prior to that in propelling Waterford deep into the championship. It was a breakout year for Stephen Bennett with his attacking performances, exemplified by the good stuff that enabled Waterford’s stirring second-half comeback against Kilkenny.
A third win for Jamie Barron afer his all-action midfield shows nudges him up amongst the county’s great in this particular pecking order. Brick Walsh on four and John Mullane on five are the only Deise performers ahead of him on this list.
For Galway’s Daithi Burke and Kilkenny’s TJ Reid, their fifth awards arrived as a signal of enduring hurling class. Burke’s winning run was interrupted in 2019 after four on the spin but he came back to collect this latest All-Star. It bumps him up to five, the same tally as Galway’s leaders Joe Canning, Joe Cooney and Pete Finnerty.
Reid’s maiden accolade arrived in 2012, his stature rose significantly with his blistering ’14-’15 form while as the elder statesman of the Kilkenny forward line, he has now spearheaded their fortunes in style as noted by being lauded in this fashion in ’19-’20.
And then rounding off the selection is Tony Kelly, a solo act who lit up Clare’s outings with dazzling score-taking against the likes of Limerick and Wexford. It would have appeared outlandish after his 2013 heroics to suggest he would be waiting seven seasons for his second honour but he was a lock after this year’s form.
Much like the football equivalent, there are less hard-luck stories this year than usual.
Will O’Donoghue is the primary one though after a year fuelling the engine room for Limerick. He may have received cameos in 2018, coming on in the 67th minute of the final, but his role has spiked in prominence since then for his team and he has rewarded that faith by management with the level of his performances.
Captain Declan Hannon must have been another strong Limerick challenger while Austin Gleeson had some excellent moments, doing plenty to channel Waterford in the right direction. At opposite ends of the pitch, Kilkenny’s Conor Delaney and Galway’s Brian Concannon played in a bright and impressive fashion.
But the overriding sense is of a team packed with Limerick leaders.
And that’s a theme in keeping with the hurling year.