Saturday 23 September 2017

Analysis: Playing Clare in Páirc Uí Chaoimh ‘colosseum’ can bring the best out of Tipperary

Patrick Maher in action for Tipperary. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Patrick Maher in action for Tipperary. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Brendan Cummins

Tipperary's games against Clare in late 1990s and early 2000s were the most exciting and tense I've ever played in.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh was the common denominator and ahead of next Saturday's qualifier between the counties at the revamped Cork venue, the old memories have come flooding back.

We met Clare six times there between 1999 and 2003 - and it was pure theatre.

By 2003, the intense nature of the rivalry had fizzled out to a large degree but when Ger Loughnane was in charge of Clare, and we were managed by Nicky English, it was at its most intense.

I never experienced atmospheres to compare until my final game as a Tipperary hurler against Kilkenny at Nowlan Park in 2013, in terms of how the crowd felt so close.

Loughnane had the status of Brian Cody today - everybody wanted to take his team down.

Nicky, in our corner, was the guy credited by many with lighting the Clare fuse during the 1993 Munster final, when he smiled after slotting a point over the bar.

The old Páirc Uí Chaoimh was like a colosseum.

Above the ground, in the public eye, the venue was flash and the pitch pristine. It was one of my favourite surfaces but you couldn't swing a cat in the dressing rooms.

We used to share with the team who played in the curtain-raiser and you had 40 bodies crammed into an area that was barely fit for half that number.

I'd always tog out in the toilets beside the showers, a glint of light shining through a tiny slit in the window.

I could almost reach out and touch the physio table close to the cubicles, players getting pre-match rubs there because there was no room anywhere else.

At least in the toilets you'd have enough room to bend the elbow and get your gear on but we were granted access to the weights room a couple of times.

That presented its own problems because you'd never have made it there unless gardaí cleared a path through the swathes of supporters converging under the covered stand, the air heavy with cigarette smoke.

But that weights room allowed us room to breathe, to puck the ball.

What it didn't allow was a route back to the toilets and if you wanted to go for a slash, you went in a blue barrel in the corner.

Making your way onto the pitch presented another logistical problem - getting through the crowds of people again.

Gardaí created a human tunnel but the timing had to be perfect to ensure that supporters weren't injured when the teams bounded out.

Before we played Clare in the 2001 Munster semi-final, we were in a frenzied state.

All week long, I felt demented because all we were hearing was 'Loughnane this, Loughnane that,' how we were somehow the minnows taking on the new giants.

It was all about how great and aggressive Clare were, and how we had a soft centre waiting to be exposed.

But I hadn't yet won an All-Ireland senior medal and our mindset going onto the pitch was that we were the ones who would be hostile, angry, aggressive.

If we wanted to be an animal like Clare, we had to behave like them and eventually it would turn into a game of hurling and we'd win, which we did by a point.

We'd have knocked down anybody in our way to get onto the pitch that day and that was best illustrated by our captain, Tommy Dunne.

He was in front of me as we made our way out but there was a supporter stood in the way and Tommy ran through him.

I ended up stepping on this guy, who was pulled out of the way before the rest of the herd had the chance to finish him off.

The next challenge was that old railing beyond the tunnel, just before we hit the pitch. Tommy vaulted it and while I wanted to go around it, once he'd gone over it, I had to as well.

Suddenly, you're out into the sunlight but the confines of that cramped dressing room were then replaced by the tightness of the bowl itself.

The Tipp and Clare players will experience that on-pitch feeling on Saturday but they won't have to get ready in those primitive surroundings.

It's new territory as the two counties meet in a championship game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the first time in 14 years and I think Tipp will win because they'll turn over more ball in the Clare half-back line.

Patrick 'Bonner' Maher would have flourished in those games of yore and his presence alone is enough to tip the scales now. Yep, 'Bonner' would have loved it - because it was something else.

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