Martin Breheny: The top 50 hurlers of 2011
After a season in which Kilkenny regained the All-Ireland crown in style, Martin Breheny selects his stand-out performers of the year
THE release last week of the Opel-sponsored GAA GPA hurling All Star nominations underlined the degree to which three counties -- Kilkenny, Tipperary and Dublin -- dominated the landscape throughout 2011.
Between them, they took 34 of the 45 places and are likely to claim 14 of the 15 positions on the team, leaving Waterford's John Mullane as the sole 'outsider'.
That's a team issue, but how do hurling's star acts rank vis-a-vis each other at the end of another fascinating season? Here's the top 50.
1. Tommy Walsh (Kilkenny)
Heading for a ninth successive All Star award at the age of 28, his haul could reach a dozen before he finally signs off. Kilkenny needed to start the All-Ireland final with a level of ferocity that would send out a clear message to Tipperary that much had changed since the 2010 showdown. Walsh was among the first to lay down a fiery marker.
2. Michael Fennelly (Kilkenny)
A real enforcer from midfield, his strength, mobility and game-reading were all crucial to Kilkenny's renewed drive for glory. His goal late in the first half of the All-Ireland final was the end-product of superb support play, but most of the credit went to Fennelly, who timed his forward run with expert precision.
3. Henry Shefflin (Kilkenny)
Mother Hen was back and the Kilkenny nest was a much more secure place. Contrast the shape and order of the Kilkenny attack in this year's All-Ireland final with the uncertainly when he went off a year earlier. The great unanswerable question is whether Kilkenny would have been bidding for six-in-a-row this year if Shefflin and Brian Hogan had been fully fit for the 2010 final.
4. Richie Power (Kilkenny)
He wasn't at his most prolific as a score-getter (0-6 from play in the championship), but made a big contribution as a ball-winner and distributor while drawing frees.
5. Padraic Maher (Tipperary)
His full-back days are behind him -- for the present at least. Tipperary's best player this year, he ran another excellent campaign. Question is -- should he have been assigned to mark Henry Shefflin at the start of the All-Ireland final?
6. Lar Corbett (Tipperary)
There's always a tendency to concentrate on a player's last game of the season when assessing his overall year. Corbett had a quiet All-Ireland final, held scoreless by Jackie Tyrrell, but he scored 7-9 from open play in his four previous games. Not many players have matched that in any era.
7. JJ Delaney (Kilkenny)
Anybody who can interchange between full-back and wing-back so easily has a special talent. Delaney demonstrated his wide capability range once again as he returned to the peaks visited during his best years throughout the last decade
8. Brian Hogan (Kilkenny)
Tipperary created a few goals straight down the middle in the 2010 All-Ireland final as an injured Hogan watched from the stand. Not this time. Hogan tightly secured the central channels just as he had done throughout the season.
9. Peter Kelly (Dublin)
Probably the most improved defender in 2010, his versatility was a major plus for Dublin as they battled against a nasty injury bug. Effective in a variety of defensive positions, he grew in stature as the season progressed.
10. Michael Rice (Kilkenny)
Kilkenny's third highest championship scorer behind Henry Shefflin and Richie Hogan, he also made a significant impact as a powerhouse ball-winner around midfield. Seems all set to win his second All Star award in the half-forward line.
11. Liam Rushe (Dublin)
One of the most versatile performers in hurling, he's comfortable from No 5 to No 15, which is quite a bonus for Dublin. Still only 21-years-old, so he represents the future of Dublin hurling at a time when the county is feeling very good about itself.
12. John Mullane (Waterford)
Will his career end without an All-Ireland medal? It's beginning to look that way. For while Waterford have been the third most consistent side in the country for the last few seasons, they haven't closed the gap on Kilkenny and Tipperary while others are joining the queue behind the big two.
13. Jackie Tyrrell (Kilkenny)
Hurling's best No 4 for quite some time, he was quieter than usual in the champion- ship until required most of all when lined up directly against Lar Corbett in the All-Ireland final. His performance typified 'Village' pride at its best as he held Corbett scoreless.
14. Michael Cahill (Tipperary)
A tidy operator who's getting better all the time. Tyrrell has set the template for corner-back play and Cahill, who's still only 22-years-old, appears to have studied it closely.
15. Paul Curran (Tipperary)
It's easy to see Tipperary's season solely through the prism of the All-Ireland final defeat, but there was more to it than that. Curran was central to their advance to the final and, after struggling against Eoin Larkin early on, he settled into his highly effective routine.
16. Ryan O'Dwyer (Dublin)
Tipp's loss was very much Dublin's gain. There were periods in the All-Ireland final when Tipperary could have done with O'Dwyer's direct running game. It would have left Kilkenny facing a different type of threat to what they encountered.
17. Michael 'Brick' Walsh (Waterford)
His full-back adventure didn't work, but everything else did. Even when things went wrong for him at No 3 in the first half against Tipperary in the Munster final, he resumed normal service at centre-back in the second half. A class act at No 6 (and midfield too).
18. Gary Maguire (Dublin)
Goalkeepers from Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Clare and Galway have won All Stars over the past 40 years. Maguire is poised to become Dublin's first No 1 to win the award..
19. Niall Corcoran (Dublin)
Most opposition targeted him as a defender who could be got at by smart corner-forwards, but not many succeeded.
20. Richie Hogan (Kilkenny)
He scored 4-4 in the championship, including two goals against Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final and, even more crucially, 1-1 against Tipperary. The goal in the final was superbly crafted and brilliantly finished, crowning a fine season for Hogan.
21. Eoin Kelly (Tipperary)
He ran an excellent Munster championship campaign, scoring 4-16 (4-6 from open play), but found life much harder in Croke Park against Dublin and Kilkenny.
22. Kevin Moran (Waterford)
A really genuine performer whose versatility is a major asset to Waterford. One of the few to come anywhere near doing themselves justice in the Munster final massacre, he gave a man-of-the-match performance against Galway two weeks later.
23. Joe Canning (Galway)
completed his fourth season in the senior championship, but still hasn't seen the inside of an All-Ireland semi-final dressing-room. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Too much is expected of him, but he should benefit from the clear-out which simply has to come if Galway are to make progress.
24. Brendan Cummins (Tipperary)
A record-breaking season in terms of championship games played in his long career, Cummins maintained his usual high-quality service, conceding just three goals in five Munster and All-Ireland outings, none of which he had any chance of saving.
25. Conal Keaney (Dublin)
A huge addition to Dublin's hurling crusade, it was unfortunate that a road accident ruled him out at the most crucial stage of the season. Nonetheless, he had done much to advance Dublin's cause up to then.
26. Colin Fennelly (Kilkenny)
Another from the Fennelly clan has sped onto the fast lane. It was only a matter of time before he forced his way into Kilkenny's starting 15 and, having done that, he's likely to remain there for a long time.
27. Paul Ryan (Dublin)
Top scorer in the championship on 3-38, his accuracy from frees was a crucial part of Dublin's dramatic advance this year. Improving in open play too.
28. Paul Murphy (Kilkenny)
Another successful spin of Kilkenny's talent carousel produced a corner-back who grew into the high-pressure demands of the job and saw it through to the end. Indeed, he improved with each outing up to, and including, the All-Ireland final.
29. David Herity (Kilkenny)
In keeping with the Kilkenny tradition of blooding their goalkeepers later than others, Herity enjoyed an excellent first championship season at the age of 28.
30. Eoin Larkin (Kilkenny)
Getting himself sent off in the League final against Dublin seriously damaged Kilkenny, but he returned to normal high service in the championship, especially in the All-Ireland final where his early bursts helped set down an important marker.
31. Patrick Maher (Tipperary)
Bonner doesn't score very much (1-1 in the championship), but his high work-rate remains an important cog in Tipperary's attacking wheel. One of the few Tipperary forwards to make an impression on the Kilkenny defence in the All-Ireland final.
32. Noel Hickey (Kilkenny)
Won his head-to-head battle with Eoin Kelly in the All-Ireland final, which must have been very satisfying after a troubled outing (especially against Lar Corbett) a year earlier.
33. Noel McGrath (Tipperary)
Wasn't as effective as in 2010, but it's easy forget that he's still only 20. Tipp have no need to worry about the direction his graph will take in the coming seasons.
34. David Collins (Galway)
Amiserable year for Galway seniors, who retained the All-Ireland frustration title. Collins was one of the few to reach the level that's required to make things work.
35. Conor O'Mahony (Tipperary)
Replaced before the hour mark in the All-Ireland final, but had done well up to then and, indeed in earlier championship games against Dublin, Waterford and Clare.
36. John McCaffrey (Dublin)
A midfielder in name, he operated on the defensive side of Dublin's tactical range and did it extremely well too.
37. TJ Reid (Kilkenny)
Lost his place for the All-Ireland final, but made an immediate impact when brought on after an hour. Had some good spells earlier in the campaign too and n the league.
38. Joey Boland (Dublin)
Injury disrupted his season, which was a great pity as he is a seriously good defender. Despite the setbacks he kept battling back and saw the championship out with a good performance against Tipperary in the semi-final.
39. Shane Walsh (Waterford)
Hit the Offaly, Kilkenny, Cork and Galway defences for a total of 3-13 from open play in the league and stung Galway for 1-4 in league and championship. It shows his capabilities when the supply is good.
40. Declan Hannon (Limerick)
A teenage star on the Limerick horizon. Missed the Munster semi-final due to the Leaving Cert, but made a big impression from there on, scoring 0-28 (0-11 from open play) in three games. He'll be higher up the list next year.
41. Gearoid Ryan (Tipperary)
Midfield can be a difficult place these days. You've got to play your way into the game rather than waiting for it to come to you -- Ryan did that quite well.
42. Tom Condon (Limerick)
Got a tough introduction to championship hurling against John Mullane, but learned quickly from the experience and played well from there on.
43. Tony Browne (Waterford)
Still more than holding his own at the age of 38. Who said hurling was a young man's game?
44. Donal O'Grady (Limerick)
A consistently solid worker, he played a big part in Limerick's return to the main bunch chasing Kilkenny and Tipperary.
45. Eddie Brennan (Kilkenny)
Got only two 10-minute runs as a sub in the championship prior to the All-Ireland final, but restored to the starting 15 for the clash with Tipperary and made an important impact.
46. Damien Hayes (Galway)
The poor supply to Galway's inside forwards left Hayes living off scraps on some of the big days, but he showed his true value when the chances came against Cork and Clare.
47. Shane Durkin (Dublin)
A solid defensive performer in Dublin's best season for 50 years.
48. Pauric Mahony (Waterford)
An impressive newcomer who made a big impact. Showed great maturity with the free-taking duties and looks set for a bright career.
49. Shane Dooley (Offaly)
It's his bad luck that his career is coinciding with a valley period for Offaly hurling. If there's to be an upswing, he will be at the heart of it.
50. Patrick Horgan (Cork)
Only one Cork man in the top 50? Something for Jimmy Barry-Murphy to reflect on as he begins the re-building work.