Unlocking the back door
Here's a question for you readers. Offaly 1998, Cork 2004 and Tipperary 2010 -- what do these three counties have in common? Answer: they've all won the All-Ireland senior hurling title through the back door.
In 15 seasons, it's a feat that has been achieved on just three occasions. Difficult but not impossible. And all four competing counties involved in Sunday's quarter-final double-header at Semple Stadium will believe that it's an achievable target.
Back door or front door; there's no right way and no wrong way either. When you've lost in your provincial championship, like we did in 2010, the key is getting the right draw against the right team.
One big result and you're back on the road. Look at Kerry beating Tyrone last weekend. Kerry's players and fans are now feeding off that special energy again. In the dressing-room after the game, you know that you've done something special, something big.
You were doubted and questioned in the build-up but now you have that much-sought ingredient. Momentum has been referenced in Six Nations rugby as one of the key factors in success and the same applies in the qualifiers, year in, year out. And momentum can be an unstoppable force when a team gets on a roll.
At the start of the year, most teams will set out to win an All-Ireland. But no team will set out to win it through the back door. If you get knocked out in your provincial championship, then you re-evaluate. And it's the teams that can pick up the pieces the quickest that will move forward.
Kerry versus Tyrone was the perfect draw for both teams last Saturday. Huge match, huge consequences. One crack at it. Massive attraction for both sets of supporters, both teams potentially on their last legs and it's all about how you deal with it.
In 2010, we were beaten by Cork but we recovered against Wexford in our first qualifier. It was great to get the win and more importantly, it built that momentum that carried us to the All-Ireland title. Tipp's senior footballers have momentum now after winning three games on the trot.
They play Down tomorrow in Mullingar in round four of the qualifiers. I watched the Ulster final last Sunday and Donegal seem to be serious contenders for Sam, but Down stayed with them for a long time and it was the couple of goals that seemed to do the trick for Donegal. Down remain a serious force but Tipp have more momentum this year than I've ever seen.
On the flip side, teams that win their provincial championship have to deal with expectation in a different way. You've become accustomed to success, you've won two or three matches on the trot and now it's about keeping focused. The problem arises when you're marked out as an All-Ireland contender. Nobody really cares what you did in the provincial championship. There's a different animal waiting for you in the form of the All-Ireland series.
And after winning a Munster or Leinster final, you can't afford to let the mind go soft. On Sunday evening, just four teams will be left in the race for this year's All-Ireland hurling title. I won't get a chance to head down to Semple Stadium but I am looking forward to the banter among supporters of the four counties that come to the pub.
We've played three of the participants in Munster this year. Against Limerick in the first round, we weren't ready for the intensity they came with and I'm still not quite sure how we came back to win that game. Limerick let us off the hook and looking at them this year, they're a hard-working side and have come with a physicality that we haven't seen before.
We all know how physical Kilkenny are, how tough they are, and I'm expecting them to come out fighting. Before that, Waterford and Cork lock horns and these are two teams that we know plenty about.
We emerged from a Munster semi-final against Cork with just a point to spare, and on the right side of the luck that was going. And Waterford in the Munster final was a seriously tough battle. They let a couple of chances slip away and had they been taken, we could have been looking at a different result. We're lucky to be where we are, in an All-Ireland semi-final, because teams in Munster are on a similar level.
Throughout the course of this year's hurling championship, there have been more surprises than I can remember for a long time. However, that's exactly what hurling needs because we obviously have fewer teams competing than in the football championship.
And for the neutral in recent years, it's been all about Kilkenny and their domination. But now there's some variety and after three successive finals between Kilkenny and Tipp, we'll have at least one new team contesting this year's decider.