Selectors have it easy with team that picks itself
The All Stars haven't always been right, but it's hard to get it wrong this year, says Jamesie O'Connor
The year is 1994. The venue the Burlington Hotel. A young wing-forward, in his second season playing inter-county and thrilled to receive an All Star nomination, enters the room with fellow hurling nominees for announcement of team. Player hasn't hope of getting selected himself but is delighted when team-mate Anthony Daly receives a deserved award.
However, player is also in state of complete shock when it registers with him that hurler of the year Brian Whelahan has, bizarrely, been omitted. Player recovers from shock to go on to have great night, and several other great nights for that matter, at subsequent All Star functions.
In fairness, in the 16 years since there haven't been too many glaring omissions from the awards, and certainly none on the scale of the injustice perpetrated that night. Yet, year after year, once the excitement and euphoria of the All-Ireland finals subsides, a certain amount of talk in the hurling and football heartlands centres on the likely composition of the year's All Star side.
This year, at least from a hurling perspective, the debate, even amongst those charged with the responsibility of selecting the side, isn't likely to have lasted that long. With one, possibly two exceptions, the team for the most part seems to pick itself. Certainly I'll be surprised if there are any more than one, possibly two differences from the side I envisage being chosen.
The first of those areas where there are two genuine contenders, is the goalkeeping slot. Brendan Cummins didn't do a whole lot wrong this year and may very well pick up the award on Friday night, but for me the best number one in the country was Donal óg Cusack. Superb against Tipperary in the championship opener, especially with a couple of crucial saves early on, he remained rock solid and dependable in a side that never managed to scale the same heights as they did that day in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Impeccable handling, top-class distribution and, like Cummins, a willingness to put his body on the line, means he should get the nod over his Tipperary counterpart.
Waterford's Noel Connors has to get the number two jersey. Small in stature but tough, aggressive, and tight marking, he's the sort of tigerish corner-back you'd hate to spend 70 minutes on. Superb against Clare and in both Munster finals against Cork, he did more than enough to merit inclusion.
Paul Curran may have started out as Tipp's third choice in the position, but he made the full-back slot his own once he moved there against Wexford. One mistake against Galway apart, he hardly put a foot wrong all year and his display in the final was instrumental in Tipp's success. The full-back line should be completed by Kilkenny's enforcer, Jackie Tyrrell. Apart from an uncomfortable second half on Cork's Patrick Horgan, in a game that was already over, Tyrrell was peerless all year. Even in the final, when the cause appeared lost, he kept driving forward and was defiant to the last. A class player.
As far back as the first Sunday in July, the wing-back positions were nailed down by two Kilkenny men. Although he had a relatively subdued end to the year by his own high standards, Tommy Walsh was man of the match against both Dublin and Galway and is an automatic choice. Ditto his counterpart on the other wing, JJ Delaney. Restored to his best position, he was imperious in the air, superb in the tackle and in my mind, on his day, is the best defender in the game.
While Pádraic Maher excelled at centre-back when moved there against both Galway and Kilkenny, and was a colossus in the position for the Tipp under 21s, he had uncomfortable moments elsewhere in the championship. Either way, it's a toss up for the position between himself and Waterford's Michael 'Brick' Walsh. Good against Clare, Brick was awesome in both games with Cork where he lorded proceedings. Admittedly, Noel McGrath wreaked havoc on him in the semi-final, but that had as much to do with Waterford's tactical failings on the day as anything else. Given the way he dominated the Munster final, not once but twice, the Waterford captain gets the nod.
Midfield is easy: Brendan Maher (pictured left) and Michael Fennelly. Maher is a certainty to pick up the young player award, but in my mind was also the outstanding hurler of the year. Still under 21, and in only his second season, he was a revelation in the position. Athletic, skilful, intelligent, he was consistently Tipp's best player, and someone who stood up when the need was greatest.
Fennelly is the stand-out candidate to partner him. He really progressed this year as a player, and once he secured his place alongside Michael Rice in the early part of the season, never looked like losing it. Powerful, athletic and aggressive, he is one of the players likely to become a mainstay of the Kilkenny team over the next three to four years.
In a year that saw pretty few good attacking performances, picking 18 forward nominations will have been a far more onerous task for the selection committee than choosing the final six. Tipp's Noel McGrath is an automatic choice at centre-forward. With an abundance of class and skill, he also possesses the vision that enables him to orchestrate proceedings and at a stroke solve what had become a problem position for Liam Sheedy's side. Beside him, Lar Corbett is another certainty. With the last-ditch winner against Galway, the vital goal against Waterford and three goals in the final from just seven touches in the entire game, Lar's contribution to Tipp's season may very well garner him at least one of the individual awards to go with the All Star he's certain to receive. The other half-forward position deserves to go to Galway's Damien Hayes. In a malfunctioning attack, Hayes emerged as the one consistent threat, and was by a distance Galway's best forward. Apart from Cork's Niall McCarthy, who also had a really good year, few others did enough to merit consideration in the half-forward line.
Having pretty much carried Waterford's attack all season, the constant threat posed by John Mullane makes him a cert to wear No 13. Beside him Kilkenny's Richie Power stepped up to the plate and over the season was probably the best full-forward in the country. That leaves Tipp's Eoin Kelly for the final position at top of the left. The All-Ireland winning captain and also the top scorer in the championship has to be included. At any rate, the leadership and composure he displayed, especially in the final and on the pressure frees that got his team there, mean he's yet another selection few are likely to quibble with.
If there's to be an outsider, Offaly's Shane Dooley and Antrim's Liam Watson had their moments as did Cork's Patrick Horgan, but none of that trio did enough in my mind to get anywhere close to usurping the trio likely to be selected.