Cork in firing line for league backlash
Today will give us a clear indication of where Tipp stand after the thrashing by Galway
It was, declared a Cork delegate at the last county convention, a "capitulation". How bad? The worst, in his view, since 1965, which was a bad day for Cork, right enough, losing as they did to Tipp in the Munster final by 18 points. Last year's Munster quarter-final, which the delegate was referring to, left Cork nine points adrift.
The 2014 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Tipp reached double figures but this was worse, he argued, because they were never in the match. They looked beaten after 10 minutes. Tipp's win was bloodless.
That frustration which found an outlet at county convention was flavoured with other issues, like county players being forbidden access to their clubs for five weeks before they played Tipp and a sweeper system that made Cork look like a man wearing a smaller man's coat. The same delegate spotted Diarmuid O'Sullivan and Pat Hartnett on the sideline that day, mentoring, and it made his heart sink. "Two fellas who would die for the team," he lamented, "who would cut the head off you, and then to see players dawdling around." Maybe they weren't good enough? He wasn't buying that line. Twelve of the team were within seconds of winning an All-Ireland in 2013.
Now that seems a long time ago, although it may not be in the memories of the Cork players coming to Thurles today, those who suffered the defeat first-hand. Later events have overtaken it in the popular imagination. Tipp won the All-Ireland but an unexpected defeat in the league final has hit a nerve and in a sense overtaken the All-Ireland too. A 16-point lashing by Galway, a margin last achieved in a league final when Tipp trounced Galway in 1979, has been putting the focus not on how Cork respond, but how Tipp do.
Tipp have some previous. The 10-point lesson from Cork in Pairc Uí Chaoimh seven years ago arrived like hailstone on a sunbather and threatened to derail their bid to win an All-Ireland. Henry Shefflin, who was at the match and on the Kilkenny team fortunate to beat Tipp in the All-Ireland final the previous September, told Liam Sheedy later that he thought Tipp were done coming out of Cork that evening. Or that, at least, he felt that they would find it extraordinarily difficult to revitalise themselves. He might have thought that Cork had just done Kilkenny a favour. As it happened they had done Tipp one. Under Sheedy they recovered and won the All-Ireland. What hadn't killed them made them stronger.
It is partly the reason why Sheedy isn't too troubled by the league final four weeks ago. That Cork win in 2010 was their biggest over Tipp since 1942 in the championship. Yet there are those who feel that the Cork defeat in 2010 differs to the loss to Galway in the recent league final. Seven years ago they had as much of the play as Cork but got hit by sucker-punches at crucial times. The league final was a beating without any redeeming aspects and it should, but for poor Galway finishing, have been an even greater slaughter.
Tipp stand accused at times of overestimating themselves but Michael Ryan has stopped at nothing in trying to insulate the squad and reduce the risk of infection as best he can. Over the winter certain guidelines were put in place to control their celebrations. There are Tipp players who are now more earnest personalities than they were when they won in 2010, some remarkably so.
There are a couple who are still learning how to handle that responsibility of being in the public eye, but the principles laid down by management are about maximising the talent available. It is about being like Kilkenny. They set out today in defence of a title last defended successfully by their county 52 years ago.
The league, ultimately, is not what Tipp are after. The prospect of closing that long gap back to 1965 is a huge motivation to Ryan and his back-room team, and to the players. Through most of the league they did what was asked of them but their training schedule never deviated from today's match with Cork. Two days after a league semi-final with Wexford which was played at full pelt and highly competitive for over an hour, they had an intensive training session. The league final was on the following Sunday. It doesn't fully explain the staleness of their performance but it does illustrate where their hearts really lay.
"I think Galway hadn't won a trophy since 2012 when they won the Leinster title and for Micheal Donoghue that was his first big piece of silverware," says Sheedy. "I don't think anyone is surprised to see Galway play like that. They approached it wanting to make a statement that they wanted to win. We had days like that on my watch with Tipp too. But this is the first time in 13 matches it has happened under Michael Ryan.
"Any time you get heavily beaten you are questioned. When we got beaten in 2010 we questioned ourselves. There is always a learning opportunity when you lose. Did they over-train? That is the beauty about that; you can learn. It is not just Michael. Everyone in the back-room team and all the players will reassess themselves to see where they are."
It is not something that Sheedy is unduly concerned about, though he says it has invariably shaken everyone up like a sudden slap to the face. In 1998 similar puzzlement followed Clare's uncharacteristically tame league semi-final defeat to Cork in Thurles when they were All-Ireland champions. There were suspicions that they had either deliberately thrown the match or held back, deciding to save themselves for the championship, with Cork waiting in the Munster semi-final.
"It was just one of those things where Cork were up for it big time," says Jamesie O'Connor, who played that day. "We thought we were."
He cites Anthony Daly's first championship game as Clare manager, beaten 19 points by Waterford in Thurles in 2004 as another example. "I had strained my hamstring a few weeks before and wasn't sure I would make it. But I thought we were flying it. I would have said put the money on us, and we went out and got absolutely eaten alive. I remember Daly saying you have to come to the game ready for the fight; Waterford came ready to go to war."
Tipp demonstrated a noticeable spike in fitness last year between the last round of the league (when beaten by Clare in the quarter-final) and the first round of the championship. This year's training schedule wasn't going to be compromised by reaching a league final and they've also had to accommodate rounds of the local championship. It was during a North Tipp divisional match a fortnight ago than Bonner Maher picked up the injury that leaves him a doubt today. None of this should deflect from the quality of Galway's performance. In the last two championships Galway and Tipp had little between them, each winning once, and Galway have, when in the mood, taken teams apart.
"We played Kilkenny in the league in 2009 and we got destroyed," says Sheedy, "but we came back and played them in the league final a few weeks later and they beat us only after extra-time. We learned a huge amount about our team. We got beaten by 10 points in 2010 and in less than 100 days you are up on the Hogan Stand collecting the MacCarthy Cup. If it was something that was happening every three or four games it would be a concern but it is the first time in 13 games it's happened; I don't think that should go unnoticed. It definitely does dent confidence, there is no doubt about it, but they have had the four weeks to talk through that."
The most damning critique came from Ger Loughnane who dismissed the team as not even good, let alone great, and accused them of "softness" and "complacency". Galway brought an aggression to the league final that Tipp couldn't handle but the complacency charge is probably more credible. The loss of Seamus Callanan and an off-day on the frees for John McGrath also contributed. Tipp's win over Wexford the Sunday before came with a rush of goals in the final 10 minutes which may have camouflaged how tough the game had been and exaggerated Tipp's well-being. Galway's win over Limerick, meanwhile, got pushed to the side; nobody was paying much attention. They physically overpowered Limerick but the hurling wasn't pretty and the game led Galway into the final without much ceremony.
Sheedy is Munster area manager for Bank of Ireland, with a main office in Cork. He has sampled how both counties are feeling in the lead in to today's match, with Tipp unbeaten by Cork since 2010. "I would say they are quiet and probably a little apprehensive," he says of Cork people he comes across. "They know I think that they are heading in the right direction. But I would say they are not really sure where they are exactly. They lost to Limerick in Cork in the league (quarter-final). So they are slightly apprehensive but Cork over the years, when they meet Tipp in Thurles, there is always a chance of an upset."
The league final for Tipp he attributes to a bad day at the office and he expects them to respond positively. "They are after winning six of the last nine Munster titles. Don't tell me that Munster titles are easy to come by. They won two All-Irelands since 2010 and came within the width of a post of winning it in 2014. To me they have been consistently in the top three teams in the country all the way back to 2008.
"Was it (league final) a once-off? I think this Cork team will be better and will not be defensive like last year. They (Tipp) will get a much sterner challenge. Is that the real Tipp who won the All-Ireland or do you focus on 70 minutes of a league final? I suppose on Sunday you will find out."