Friday 30 September 2016

Dermot Crowe: Old foes ready to ignite new fires

Dermot Crowe

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Shane Nolan addresses his victorious Mary Immaculate players, including players from Tipperary and Clare, after this year’s independent.ie Fitzgibbon Cup final. Colleges hurling has helped to reduce the element of tribalism between counties. Photo: Eoin Noonan / Sportsfile
Shane Nolan addresses his victorious Mary Immaculate players, including players from Tipperary and Clare, after this year’s independent.ie Fitzgibbon Cup final. Colleges hurling has helped to reduce the element of tribalism between counties. Photo: Eoin Noonan / Sportsfile

Once it was the main game in town, the most fascinating fixture in hurling. Now Clare and Tipperary must settle for being the main draw of the day, as they prepare to meet in a National Hurling League quarter-final at Ennis. Tipperary's preoccupation is no longer with Clare, but Kilkenny, but it was hot for a long time over the last two decades, having hardly registered through most of the game's history up to then.

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Clare didn't beat Tipperary in the championship, leaving aside a couple of successful off-field objections, until 1955. Such one-sided dominance does not lend itself to a hard and storied rivalry but Clare's emergence in the 1990s changed everything. The players of today may have been told about those games, or have vague recollections of seeing them, but they are used to playing in more peaceful times. Their last championship meeting was five years ago and in the last decade the rivalry started to fade and lose its relevance, with fewer meetings and falling public interest.

In the 1990s they met in two Munster finals and one All-Ireland final, whereas the last decade brought just one provincial final meeting, in 2008, which Tipperary won comfortably. Over the period of their fiercest rivalry, there were nine championship meetings in 10 years. The 18-point beating Tipperary served on Clare in the 1993 Munster final lit the fuse. Clare turned them over the next year, and in '97 Clare had the surreal experience of defeating Tipp in provincial and All-Ireland finals in the one year.

Not until after they lost again in 1999, in a replay, did Tipp finally end a record spell of Clare rule, winning in 2000 by eight points and finishing Ger Loughnane's days in charge. Loughnane, notoriously confrontational, had a key influence in inflaming tensions and straining relations between the counties.

He came from a generation accustomed to doffing the cap to Tipperary and was, as a veteran, on the team destroyed by Tipperary in a Munster semi-final replay in Killarney in 1987, losing 0-8 to 4-17. Six years later, he spectated when they were demolished, with a mostly new team, by the same opposition in the Munster final. He was on board as a selector the following year. Beating Tipp had become an obsession.

In his official biography, Loughnane stated of the conflict: "A lot of people said the rivalry is too intense, but rivalry only lasts for a short time. Tipperary and Galway had a great rivalry on and off the field in the '80s, which boiled over a few times. Then in the '90s, we had the Clare-Tipperary rivalry."

The full-blooded intensity of the contests, and various spats off the field, made it a captivating rivalry while it lasted. After Loughnane left the same visceral element was missing and some of the strong characters like Anthony Daly and John Leahy were drifting into retirement. Clare came within a point of Tipperary in 2001, with Tipp going on to win the All-Ireland, and they beat Tipp in 2003 but Tipp have won all four championship meetings since.

"There doesn't seem to be that much rivalry there at all, as they haven't been meeting in the championship," says Brian Lohan. "There was one year we played them in the league, a league final and the championship three weeks later. It was almost an annual trip down to Cork to play them at one stage. There was that little bit of badness there as well."

Colleges hurling, where players from different counties came into contact, helped reduce the element of tribalism. Clare's Jack Browne, injured today, was captain of the UL team managed by Lohan which was defeated in this year's Fitzgibbon Cup final, by Mary I.

Also on the team were Tipperary's Jason Forde, Barry Heffernan and John McGrath, and Clare forward Cathal McInerney. On the Mary I team were Tipp's Ronan Maher and Niall O'Meara and Clare's Colm Galvin. On the Limerick IT team managed by Davy Fitzgerald this year, Cathal Barrett of Tipp and Oisín O'Brien of Clare played in the same defence and Clare's David Reidy featured in midfield.

In Lohan's Fitzgibbon days that mix was less pronounced. "There wasn't the same number of inter-county players," he says, "certainly when we were playing third level. Whereas now nearly every college has a very active GAA office and is very progressive in relation to scholarships."

In UL Lohan says John McGrath shared the same class as Tony Kelly and what he sees is a highly committed group who have more in common than not. He didn't have any personal knowledge of the Tipperary players when he came on to the Clare team in the 1990s. "We had no interaction with them. They could have been grand fellas for all we knew. We just didn't know anything about them. We didn't know them on a personal level."

Yet when they don the county shirt those college associations can't alter nature. "I suppose when you are in college," says Lohan, "you get on well with guys and especially when you play with them you have great respect for them, and that will always be there. But if you are in a scenario where someone you were in college with was denying you an All-Ireland medal for two or three years in a row, or denying you a Munster medal, you would get pretty peeved."

Eoin Kelly experienced at first-hand the influence of college hurling as a force for reconciliation. In 2005, he captained and inspired Limerick IT to their first Fitzgibbon Cup title, scoring 1-7 from play from a 1-9 total. The team was coached by Davy Fitzgerald. Kelly came on the Tipp team when the rivalry with Clare was still ablaze, introduced in 2001 as a teenager. The year he won the Fitzgibbon the team had fellow county men Conor O'Mahony and Shane McGrath, while Clare provided John Reddan, Barry Nugent and Fergus Flynn. The UL team they beat in the final contained Brendan Bugler, and was captained by John Devane, who hurled with Tipp.

Davy Fitzgerald was the embodiment of Clare's bolshie attitude that often got under Tipp's skin, and was still playing county at the time, but college hurling brought Kelly and Fitzgerald on to the one side and helped create a better understanding of one another. The counties met in Munster that summer, Tipperary winning, though Clare went longer in the championship, to the semi-finals, one step more than Tipp.

"I remember even around 2000, my Leaving Cert year, and Tipp playing Clare in Cork and you wouldn't have gone to the match, you were stuck in the books at home, but you made sure you were watching that game because it was knockout," says Kelly. "That was the thing. And I think that is why the rivalry was at its height then. In 2001 as well, that first game against Clare, was knockout. A lot of those games were in Páirc Uí Chaoimh around that time, and it was like a cauldron down there."

If the dawn of the qualifiers in 2002 helped eased some of the pressure in those matches, the cosmopolitan influence of college, which Kelly and others experienced, also contributed. "I suppose, hate, that is what it was with Tipp and Clare," says Kelly. "That was instilled into you. You heard your predecessor talk about that hate for Clare, and Clare had it too, their hatred for Tipp, but nowadays lads are living with each other through college and there is a cosier relationship off the pitch.

"I came in from early 2001 and there was nothing spoken about since the draw but Clare. You knew it was Clare we were playing because it (training) was all hits. I remember John Carroll upended me and I was lying on the ground and Nicky English said, 'Get up, move on', because he knew what Clare were bringing. We had to stand up to the intensity they brought.

"Now when you think of Clare, it is how you break down their defence on Sunday. I know they don't have all their marquee players playing but it is more about pace now with Clare, and space; that is what Tipp are going to have to deal with."

Being close to Davy Fitzgerald in LIT gave him a closer appreciation of what made him the character he is. "When you were on his team he backed you 100 per cent. And I think it was something I'd seen under Davy's management I would have brought with me: that will to win, to do anything to win. He turned Limerick IT on its head; it was not renowned as a Fitzgibbon stronghold. They have contested 11 or 12 of the last semi-finals. He thrived on the challenge. He was on the first Sixmilebridge team to win an All-Ireland. Then the Clare team that ended an 81-year gap. He believed in a team, if they worked hard, that anything is possible."

Both Fitzgerald and Kelly were in Ennis, on opposite sides of the trenches, when the Clare-Tipp rivalry strayed beyond acceptable limits in 1999, the evening of the Munster under-21 final. Fitzgerald was on the sideline, coaching, while Kelly, only 17, came in as a sub. In 2003, Len Gaynor, who had a spell managing Clare and then managing Tipp against them in the years beforehand, spoke of the hostility in the ground that evening when watching the under 21 final as a spectator. "You couldn't overstate it really. I went down there with a clear head and mind but I could not believe what was happening.

"I would say very little would have touched off a riot that night. If any serious incident had taken place on the field, it would have set it off."

In the second half when Tipp scored a goal he found himself clapping his hands between his knees. "I didn't want to be seen clapping them any higher - it was that bad. 'Twas a sad night for sportsmanship and the like. I think people realised after that it was gone beyond a joke."

As for today, with the old tension long defused, Kelly says Tipp will be eager to win and feel they should, given Clare's player casualties. But he expects Davy Fitzgerald to be confident of plotting a famous Clare victory against the odds. "He is planning to win that game, by hook or by crook, and if he doesn't he has the injuries to fall back on. But I expect a serious fight in Clare this weekend."

Who knows? It could be the start of a new chapter in their rivalry.

Today's Allianz Hurling League Games (3.45 unless stated)

Division 1 Quarter-finals

Wexford v Waterford
Innovate Wexford Park, 3.30

The divergence in the fortunes of these counties seemed unlikely when they met in a qualifier in Nowlan Park in 2014, which Wexford won to reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Whereupon Waterford went off and reinvented themselves, introducing a system of play which has seen them win a National League and perform strongly in their first year back in Division 1A, while Wexford continue to struggle in the second tier after a poor 2015 in league and championship.

Only a late Wexford score against Laois avoided the indignity of a relegation play-off; they've scraped into the quarter-finals. Two bad losses to Limerick and Offaly, the latter at home, heaps pressure on Liam Dunne in his fourth year, to the point where he felt compelled to publicly deny ill-founded rumours during the past week.

Matthew O'Hanlon has been unsettled at full-back and throughout the team there isn't anything like the confidence or stability needed to make an enduring impact. It is still relatively early in the year and injuries haven't helped.

Could they produce a fireworks display in classic Wexford style? Perhaps. But Waterford, until their recent hiccup against Dublin, have been steady and assured and should maintain their title defence.

Verdict: Waterford

Kilkenny v Offaly
Nowlan Park

Losing to Kerry in Birr has imposed a severe penalty on Offaly, placing them in the ring of fire with Kilkenny who have inflicted some traumatising defeats in recent times. This could be another. Kilkenny have topped Division 1A, recovering from a first round loss to win the rest of their games, with TJ Reid their outstanding player in a succession of hard-working team performances. Offaly, Kerry aside, have produced some decent spells: a reasonable first half in Ennis, winning with 14 men against Laois, and a fine win in Wexford Park where Joe Bergin and Shane Dooley were rampant.

In the championship two years ago, Offaly played a sweeper which never worked and their present defence faces a challenge like they've never encountered. If they had problems with Kerry's movement then one fears for what awaits them here. Their midfield struggled against Kerry too and the one area that might cause Kilkenny some problems is Offaly's inside forward line.Verdict: Kilkenny

Clare v Tipperary
Cusack Park

This is slightly more relaxed territory for Clare who have already achieved their primary goal of promotion following an unengaging and unsightly scrap with Limerick. They have been helped by home advantage, but are weakened by injuries. David McInerney is a significant loss in defence, along with Jack Browne and Séadna Morey, forcing them to test the depth of their panel, while Tony Kelly is still a key absentee. They retain the capacity to cause problems for Tipperary's defence, with Conor McGrath in form and John Conlon also figuring prominently in the Limerick match, while Colm Galvin continues to show a return to the kind of incisive contributions for which he is known.

Tipperary are without Bonner Maher and Michael Cahill and while the team's performances up to now have been patchy they have been operating in a tougher environment to Clare. The return of Seamus Callanan after injury is another factor weighing in their favour. John McGrath has been one of their successes during the spring and Michael Breen continues to add to his reputation at midfield. It will be surprising if Clare don't seriously test them, with the winners facing Kilkenny in the semi.

Verdict: Tipperary

Division 1A relegation play-off

Galway v Cork
Pearse Stadium

Repeat of the championship meeting last year which exposed Cork's defensive shortcomings - only temporarily remedied during the year's league. These sides met in the first round in February, with Galway getting a win they needed for morale if nothing else after their unsettled winter. Galway have been much like always since then, struggling for consistency, deplorably lacking the fight in some instances, with some exceptional moments too. Cork seem to have similar issues of personal drive but the fundamental problems defending their goal remain. They look set for relegation as in 2013, the year they reached the All-Ireland final.

Verdict: Galway

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