Michael Moynihan: Where does Limerick rank among the greatest hurling players?  The top shelf

Michael Moynihan: Where does Limerick rank among the greatest hurling players? The top shelf

Passion and conquest still await them.

Yeats was probably too busy chasing Maud Gonne to pay much attention to the small ball, but the big ones can always be reused. Limerick faces the toughest test and finds an answer. Champions do that.

They clinched a third All-Ireland title after a hard-fought final against Kilkenny that pushed the men in green to their limits and into the reddest of the clock’s red zones.

In the hours leading up to each All-Ireland final, rumors sprout along Jones’ Road – a sort of strained joke is possible here comparing July and September to flowering plants – and this game was no different. Between Gill’s Corner and the turnstiles, a number of Limerick players were left out, out and out again: when the two teams were announced with no changes, it almost came as a surprise.

(Forgive the focus on the preamble, but it was an unusual All-Ireland morning, between the scorching sun and a bevy of available tickets; was there ever a more one-sided market for cardboard pieces?)

Limerick has been cautious and entertaining in recent weeks, citing 2019, the last time the two sides met in the Championship. Immediately after, the focus was on the game’s contentious end, with Limerick perhaps receiving a match-leveling 65, but more than one Shannonsider mentioned his own sluggish start as Kilkenny accelerated away from them.

That didn’t happen in this game: Limerick brought the pain early on. Diarmaid Byrnes quickly got her into the top scorer – not for the first time in this league – and then came Gearóid Hegarty’s goal.

It was the main adornment of this thunderous opening, with its mix of soft skills and venom: come into the corner for the powerful finish, but stay in traffic for instant pickup. Hegarty added a few amazing points, and this age-old metric has held up well to repeated wear and tear at Croke Park. Limerick got their points easier.

Significantly, however, Kilkenny dug in and survived. They picked up points from defenders and created chances and of course they had TJ Reid. Much of the challenge went through the veteran of a thousand battles, and he kept his side in touch with his metronomic takeoffs – always, always whistling low over the bar.

To borrow a set from Rás Mór in France, Kilkenny hadn’t exited the back peloton thanks to Reid’s famous left-handed sweep: 1-17 to 0-16 at the break.

Three minutes after half-time, substitute Walter Walsh galloped to the right in his signature gallop – in fairness he took a few steps in the process – and disrupted Limerick’s steadfast defence. When the ball got to Billy Ryan, he found the net. Limerick took a four lead soon after, but the goal flooded the Kilkenny system with adrenaline: watch Walter Walsh’s point from the touchline.

No wonder, then, when Reid and Eoin Cody placed Martin Keoghan for a goal and substitute John Donnelly equalized after 47 minutes. (By the way, kudos to Cody for subverting the laws of geometry with his flick).

It was season here. All chips on the table, 23 minutes to go, 2-19 to 1-22.

Limerick scored the points: Tom Morrissey found his reach at just the right time, but Reid’s accuracy and another veteran, Richie Hogan, evened things out in the final ten minutes.

However, credit the All-Ireland champions for that irresistible late surge. They again enjoyed a jump off their subs, with Conor Boylan and Cathal O’Neill finding their range. Fittingly, Gearóid contributed Hegarty – arguably the man of the match – himself with an injury-time result as they scored five points in the closing stages without a Kilkenny reply. The Cats’ subs responded later to cut Limerick’s lead to two, but it was too little, too late.

Needless to say, Kilkenny lost nothing in yesterday’s defeat. Their urgency could be their undoing — some of those late shot picks were a little hasty, even considering the circumstances — but the experience of their younger cohort will pay off in future seasons.

“It was certainly close in the end,” said Brian Cody. “We played the All Ireland champions, by most people’s predictions we weren’t at the level we need to be to even have a chance of an All Ireland final, but I think ours Players deserve fantastic admiration for how they fought back.

“The early goal gave them a huge boost, great confidence and it gave them that cushion almost all the way up to half-time.

“They had some great results, we were four points down at half-time, which of course isn’t a huge advantage in hurling. We fought and fought it and it was unfortunate that we didn’t get where we wanted to be.

“Congratulations to Limerick on being the All Ireland Champion – three champions in a row which is a huge achievement for them and I think every Kilkenny staff should be very proud of the achievement of the Kilkenny team.”

In the green-white corner, Declan Hannon gasped after the game.

“Absolutely overjoyed,” said the Limerick captain. “Sometimes it was a titanic struggle to get over the line, but now it’s pure joy. It’s a dream that comes true every year, but it’s true.

“There is a lot of time, effort and dedication in a day like today and it is so special for our group – we have created something really strong over the past few years.

“I’m very proud of the lads and the way they dug deep there at the end – and we had to because Kilkenny came with absolutely everything we tried to finish.

“I’m over the moon for absolutely everyone, we’ve taken a few hits all year and in the last week the group even teamed up with Cian (Lynch) and it was almost sheer stubbornness that got us over the line . “

Where does Limerick sit now in the pantheon of great teams?

Right at the top of the shelf, right at the front.

Other questions? Can they create their own category or will they be caught up by other teams? They needed extra time to win the Munster final and Kilkenny’s breath was hot on their necks in added time at Croke Park.

That’s the fine print. The truth is in the headline. And in the record books.

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