Tuesday 21 November 2017

No longer the only show in town

Changes over the last two decades mean that the Cork-Tipp rivalry is not the ultimate life-force of the Munster Championship like it once was

Cork's Aisake Ó hAilpín and Tipperary's Paul Curran tussle during last year's Munster SHC clash which Cork won.
Cork's Aisake Ó hAilpín and Tipperary's Paul Curran tussle during last year's Munster SHC clash which Cork won.

Christy O'Connor

Before Tipperary began their 1993 Munster championship campaign, they arrived in Clare for a training weekend and played a game among themselves in Sixmilebridge.

The pitch was tight and the hurling was helter-skelter stuff because Tipp were effectively hot-housing themselves for a Munster final against Cork, who had roughed them up in the previous year's provincial semi-final.

The sides had met on four occasions during the three previous years in games which had defined the championship and Tipp could see nobody else again on the horizon only Cork.

Clare, though, took out Cork and Tipp amused themselves against Clare in a bloodless Munster final. But at some stage soon afterwards, one epoch ended and another one began.

The 1990s began with Cork and Tipp duelling to be masters of the universe, but it ended as the most dormant period in the history of their storied relationship. Cork and Tipp spent most of the 1990s following the leads of former subjects, which left the sentimentalists with only league games for their diet of nostalgia.


There were plenty of times when Cork and Tipp didn't meet in Munster finals -- they went 15 years without contesting a decider between 1926 and 1941 and 14 years between 1970 and 1984.

But three years was the longest period that the counties had ever gone without meeting in the championship and eight years was like a famine which threatened to alter the historic trend of the relationship.

Tradition was never going to place it under any threat, but the hiatus of the 1990s still clearly showed how hurling had radically changed during that decade.

Cork spent some time in Division 2 of the league, but even during their league meetings in the latter part of the 1990s, Cork-Tipp matches didn't shudder and tremble with the same significance of old. It didn't raise their blood like the sight of a Clare jersey would have during that time. In hurling's golden age, nostalgia had become a thing of the past.

Clare and Limerick raised the bar, winning five successive Munster titles between 1994 and '98 and the professionalism of their approach forced both Cork and Tipp to move with the times or risk being eaten alive.

And yet, tradition still sometimes put up some form of resistance to that transition. Although Tipp reached the 1997 Munster and All-Ireland finals, Premier manager Len Gaynor expressed his aversion to fully embracing the "commando training" template for the 1998 campaign.

Waterford floored Tipp in the Munster semi-final and when Nicky English took over in 1999, Tipp adopted the Clare model and never trained as hard. When Cork won the 1999 Munster title, they admitted that Clare were their yardstick.

That was the first time in Cork and Tipp's history that each county didn't see the other as the true standard or barometer within the province.

Even when Waterford and Limerick enjoyed dominant periods, and even when Cork and Tipp were both separately struggling, tradition still largely decreed that Cork and Tipp measured themselves against each other.

"Titles and trophies matter, but where Cork stand vis-a-vis Tipperary is the only measure that really matters," wrote the esteemed Cork hurling writer Kevin Cashman in the 1990 Munster final programme. "Players are judged by the single harsh criterion: can he do it, or has he done it, against Tipperary?"

That belief is outdated now. Apart from the arrival of new teams and the explosion in hurling's profile, the dormant Cork-Tipp decade also forced a revision of the mythology of their relationship.

In the folklore of Munster hurling, especially finals, an overwhelming majority of the 'truly great' matches were ascribed to Cork and Tipp, even though the circumstantial evidence didn't always stack up that argument.

Nicky English once recalled looking at the video of the 1987 Munster final replay -- regarded as their greatest day by Tipp players from that era -- and remarked that "the standard was very poor."

Cork and Tipp did produce five classic games in seven matches between 1987 and 1992, but they were ahead of every other side in Munster during that period. However, the best games in Munster in the last decade were between Cork and Waterford; their 2004 Munster final and 2007 Munster semi-final would rival -- and probably surpass -- any of the great historical Cork-Tipp meetings. Cork-Waterford has been the new, and first, great hurling rivalry so far of this century.

Meanwhile, of Cork-Tipp's eight championship meetings between 2000 and 2010, the 2006 Munster final was the only match that could be considered among the best 30 matches of that period.

The 2000 Munster final was a lively encounter, but the other five meetings wouldn't even merit consideration for inclusion.

Cork-Tipp, though, reached a watershed mark in 2007 when the attendance was only 12,106. It was a qualifier, but when the sides met in the qualifiers in Killarney in 2004, over 40,000 showed up. Both sides had already qualified for the All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2007, but it was still difficult to believe that so few supporters were in Thurles that day.

Although Cork went into the 2008 Munster semi-final with a team that had never played together before, that still posed no threat to the local assertion that Cork would win anyway because it was Cork and Tipp in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and that could only mean one result. Yet Tipp beat them in the Park for the first time in 85 years.

In recent years, convention has gone out the window. Two years ago, former Cork goalkeeper Ger Cunningham said that the qualifiers had completely taken the edge off Cork and Tipp games "which has definitely affected the relationship."

That has also impacted on the crowd and the whole occasion. When Cork and Tipp met in Munster quarter or semi-finals before, the mood and intensity was often just like a final because it was fuelled by the absolute certainty that Cork-Tipp was a national treasure, an institution to be revered.

Yet a Cork and Tipp clash now has also largely been affected by the same familiarity which eventually took the spark from the storied Clare-Tipp rivalry from the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back then, Clare and Tipp was the main show in Munster.

They met on eight occasions in the championship between 1997 and 2003, but in the last of those meetings in 2003, only 20,193 showed up. Just two years previously, 42,063 witnessed the championship's defining game at the same venue.


Sunday's meeting will be Cork and Tipp's eighth successive championship clash since 2004. Tipp may be All-Ireland champions, but there is no buzz about this current Cork team and the build-up has been muted.

The average attendance for this fixture over the last two seasons has been just above 35,000, which would have been inconceivable for this game in the past. On Sunday, the crowd is anticipated to be closer to 30,000.

The recession is a contributing factor. But the bottom line is that Cork-Tipp is not the ultimate life-force of the Munster championship like it once was, or traditionally was often deemed to be.

The last two decades have proved that there are other shows in town.

Irish Independent

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