The 'steadying hand' pointing the way in Limerick's hurling dominance

The Patrickswell player has started the 2022 championship in style.

Diarmaid Byrnes celebrating Limerick's Munster final win last year.
Diarmaid Byrnes celebrating Limerick's Munster final win last year.
Image: INPHO

DID LIMERICK EVER look in trouble in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Easter Sunday, at that unseasonably early stage in the year for championship commencement and with some doubts swirling around their camp after an indifferent league campaign?

For a team that ultimately won at a canter by 11 points, maybe there is no purpose in searching for a time of panic, but perhaps there was a moment of uncertainty early on.

Shane Kingston’s goal within seconds of throw-in served as an early boost for Cork and as the game moved past the five-minute mark, they were 1-2 to 0-0 to the good.

Limerick needed a settling influence, a requirement complicated by the strong April wind that blew down the pitch towards the Blackrock End, into the faces of John Kiely’s players.

To predict beforehand the identity of their early standard-bearer, a Patrickswell player would have been an educated guess. Cian Lynch, the two-time Hurler of the Year and current holder of that accolade, and Aaron Gillane, the only member of the 2021 All-Ireland winning full-forward line to start and the chief scoretaker in attack, would have been expected to source the scores to calm things for Limerick.

Instead it was their defender with number five on his back who stepped up.

diarmuid-byrnes-and-cian-lynch-celebrates-after-the-game Diarmaid Byrnes with Cian Lynch after the win over Cork.

Diarmaid Byrnes raised their first white flag of the day in the 7th minute, converting a free from just outside the 65-yard line. That wasn’t his first shot of the game, an effort from play moments before that free was awarded had fallen just short to be gathered under the crossbar by Patrick Collins.

Within 30 seconds of that score, Byrnes was on the mark again, this time from play. He raced into a pocket of space in the middle on halfway, fed by Gearoid Hegarty after he had been found by a quick free from Declan Hannon.

Then Limerick turned over Cork in possession, a pack of players gobbling up Darragh Fitzgibbon to force a free. This one was closer to the left wing, but still relatively central albeit closer to 75 yards out.

Again Byrnes sized up the shot, again he nailed the free.

In the space of just over 130 seconds, Limerick were firmly in contention again. Three points from their right half-back had ignited their challenge.

Detractors point to placed balls and the weight of the sliotar as factors that facilitate the current rates of scoring in hurling. In the context of last Sunday that overlooks the tricky conditions in the opening half.

The wind made shots hard to judge, measuring distance and accuracy was problematic to plenty players on show. But they didn’t interfere with Byrnes. For a player that in the early stages of his senior career was prone on occasion to low percentage shots for points, his striking now is so refined that it is sublime to witness.

diarmuid-byrnes-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Diarmaid Byrnes after last Sunday's win.

Like a golfer attempting to master the wind by punching a shot low, Byrnes’ capability to bomb strikes over is hugely impressive. He tends to arrow his shots so that they remain at the same trajectory and often just clear the crossbar.

By half-time Byrnes had those three points to his name and again in the second half he stood up when there was a cause for slight alarm for Limerick as Cork rattled off four points without reply.

The 27-year-old intervened with Limerick’s first point of the second half, coping with Cork players pressing and booming over a score from his own 65-yard line.

His fifth point of the game was supplied in the 44th minute, again from play and this time touching almost 80 yards in length.

Limerick’s last score of the afternoon arrived in the 73rd minute, Mike Casey diving to intercept a Cork delivery and winning a free. Byrne rewarded Casey’s determination by smashing over the resultant placed ball from well inside his own ‘45.

The game was a personal exhibition for Byrnes, 0-6 the highest ever tally he had recorded in a senior championship tie for Limerick. He frequently features on the scoreboard but only once previously had he surpassed three points in a championship, that was also in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when rifling over 0-4 in last July’s Munster final against Tipperary.

The RTÉ man-of-the-match award was handed to him his afterwards, the GAA website voted him Hurler of the Week later on.

His manager appreciated the value of Byrnes’ input.

“It was very helpful,” said John Kiely, when asked about that scoring contribution.

“We were struck hard by Cork early in the first half and early in the second half. They came with a lot of energy. Conditions were hard to play into that breeze. Just took us a bit of time to settle into the game.

“We just needed a steadying hand and Diarmuid offered that steadying hand with those long-range frees, very solid. Missed two now that he’d be disappointed with himself, that he would expect himself to put over, but he got the three that settled us into the game.”

Into his seventh season in the Limerick senior ranks, Byrnes is a permanent fixture in their rearguard. It is a Limerick defence where it can be difficult to stand out with a four-time All-Star winner since 2018 operating behind him in Sean Finn, the three-time Liam MacCarthy Cup winning captain alongside him in Declan Hannon and for the last two seasons the wing-back opposite to Byrnes raising that position to new heights as Kyle Hayes produces magical contributions like that electrifying goal against Tipperary last July when he slalomed up the pitch.

But Byrnes merits a high profile. He’s locked down All-Star awards for the last two years. He is integral to the Limerick style of play, dropping to supplement the full-back line as a receiver option for Nickie Quaid’s puckouts or able to cope with aerial bombardments as he showed last Sunday.

There are the raking diagonal deliveries that favour Gillane or Flanagan, the outlet for midfield if they need to switch possession back and that scoring dimension to his play.

diarmaid-byrnes Byrnes lines up a strike in last year's All-Ireland final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO


Diarmaid Byrnes Limerick senior championship record 

  • 2016 – 0-3 – 3 games.
  • 2017 - Didn’t play.
  • 2018 – 1-10 (0-4f, 0-2 ’65) – 8 games.
  • 2019 – 0-11 (0-6f, 0-3 ’65) – 5 games.
  • 2020 – 0-12 (0-4f, 0-1 ’65) – 5 games.
  • 2021 – 0-12 (0-6f, 0-1 ’65) – 4 games.
  • 2022 – 0-6 (0-3f) – 1 game.

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Byrnes underage inter-county days saw initial disappointment, knocked out in Munster by Clare at minor level in 2012 and U21 level in 2014. His last year eligible for the U21 ranks saw him entrusted with the captaincy role.

That 2015 All-Ireland decider saw Limerick thrash Wexford by 16 points, the celebrations afterwards illuminated by the Semple Stadium floodlights as Byrnes raised the distinctive Cross of Cashel, the last time that was presented to a winning captain.

diarmaid-byrnes-lifts-the-trophy Diarmaid Byrnes lifts the Cross of Cashel trophy in 2015. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Reading that starting Limerick team list now leaves a distinct impression as the surnames are digested – Finn, English, Casey, Hegarty, O’Donovan, Ryan, Lynch, Morrissey and Nash.

Byrnes made the jump to the senior ranks the following year in TJ Ryan’s last campaign in charge. They only won one game that summer against Westmeath, Byrnes shooting 0-3 from play in the qualifier loss to Clare. In 2017, Kiely’s first year as senior boss, Byrnes was ruled out with a knee injury wrecking his championship. That setback occurred in late April and by the time he was back fit, Limerick’s campaign was over, losses to Clare and Kilkenny had ensued.

And then their fortunes were flipped.

From 2018 on the theme has been appearances and trophies for Byrnes. He has started in 23 of the 24 championship games Limerick have played since, just missing the Waterford round-robin tie in 2019.

They have accumulated eight major trophies in that frame and show no sign of slowing down.

diarmuid-byrnes-with-the-mick-mackey-cup-after-the-game Byrnes celebrating last year's Munster final win.

Steadying. Solid. Settled.

Kiely’s words last Sunday capture the importance of Byrnes to their team.

They started this championship in style, now Waterford await tonight.

The right half-back will be key again.

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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