In a year when Limerick won a third All-Ireland Hurling Championship in succession, the individual gong of the GAA-GPA Hurler of the Year was always destined for a member of the champions' team. 2020 saw the honour go to Gearóid Hegaty, 2021 saw Cian Lynch win it for a second time, and in 2022 it was the turn of Diarmaid Byrnes.
The Patrickswell man saw off the competition from fellow Limerick man Barry Nash and Kilkenny's TJ Reid to win the prestigious crown. The Limerick wing-back is the first defender to win the prize since Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh back in 2009.
Byrnes isn't your typical defender, however, as his tally of 36 championship points suggests. While part of a mean Limerick rearguard, Byrnes has really made a name for himself by scoring a host of long-range scores, both from play and frees.
PwC 2022 Hurler of the Year Diarmaid Byrnes. Source: Gaelic Athletic Association - gaa.ie.
Possessing a powerful puck of the ball, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the 6'4" man can score from nearly anywhere on the pitch. But his journey to being awarded the 2022 Hurler of the Year award hasn't been written in the stars.
Now rightly regarded as one of the best players in the country, he also takes the prize as one of the most improved players in recent years, which is a testament to his work ethic, having not been the finished article in some years. And the 28-year-old would also acknowledge his luck to be playing alongside a golden generation of Limerick hurlers.
Part of the 2018 Limerick side that ended a 45-year wait for an All-Ireland title, Byrnes has now lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup on four occasions, while also winning four Munster championships. The big defender has won three All-Star awards, including in 2022, of course, when he scooped the big individual prize.
The 2022 Shortlist for Hurler of the Year
Byrnes came on top of a shortlist that included one of the most talented hurlers ever seen in TJ Reid. His All-Star award in 2022 was his sixth time being named in the team of the year, after captaining his county to win the Leinster championship and reach the All-Ireland final.
In 2015, Reid was named the Hurler of the Year, but, even at 34 years old, the Ballyhale Shamrocks man shows little sign of stopping. His 71 points total made him the top scorer in the 2022 Championship, as he continues to be the most deadly freetaker in the game.
Outside of his prolific free-taking skills, Reid is still essential to Kilkenny's build-up play and is often the chief playmaker for his side.
It is unusual for one defender to be nominated for Hurler of the Year, never mind two, but it was the case when Barry Nash was nominated alongside Byrnes. A celebrated forward at underage level, Nash lined out in attack in two of Limerick U21 All-Ireland final wins.
But since breaking into the Limerick senior side, the free-scoring forward has become a rock at the back for the Treaty County. In a team that plays in such a fluid manner, the South Liberties man still pops up with plenty of scores, but his first job is defending, and he is very good at it.
The Award Process
Who is eligible for the award?
Technically, any inter-county player is eligible to win the award, but the shortlist most often includes players whose counties reached the All-Ireland final at Croke Park in Dublin.
The last time the award went to a player whose county didn't reach the final was in 2016 when Austin Gleeson won the gong for helping Waterford to reach the last four only to lose a semi-final replay to Kilkenny.
How is the winner of the award decided?
The shortlist of nominees, like the All Star nominations shortlist, is decided by a selection of Gaelic games journalists from the national media. However, once the shortlist has been made, the winner is voted on by inter-county players from around the country.
The History of the Award
Who was the first recipient of the award?
Clare's Brian Lohan won the inaugural award in 1995. In the same year, the footballer of the year award was set up, with Tyrone's Peter Canavan winning the accolade.
Who has won the most awards?
Since its establishment in 1995, only Henry Shefflin (2002,2006, 2012) and Cian Lynch (2018,2021) have won the award on two occasions. With three awards, Shefflin is the record holder, and he also holds the record for oldest winner at 33, when winning it in 2012.
Who is the youngest winner?
Clare talisman Tony Kelly won the award at the tender age of 19 in 2013. Since then, Kelly has been shortlisted once more, in 2020.
The Hurler of the Year Winners List
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The youthful nature of Limerick's team suggests that they could continue to dominate the championship for the foreseeable future.
Therefore, it is likely that hurlers of the years will come from the Treaty County. At 26 years old, Cian Lynch has lots of time to claim a third gong and match the feat of Henry Shefflin. But it may be the time of someone like Aaron Gillane, 26, who has been unlucky not to be shortlisted so far. You also wouldn't bet against 6'7" Kyle Hayes for winning the big in the near future.
Outside of Limerick, Tony Kelly continues to perform at a very high level and would be the most likely recipient if Clare lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup once again. Already, Kelly is regarded as one of the finest hurlers of his generation. While a good place to start looking for future winners is the recipient of the Young Hurler of the Year, which in 2022 went to Kilkenny's Mikey Butler.