Nothing defines Tipperary hurling over the past decade more than its rivalry with Kilkenny. And, letâ€™s be frank, itâ€™s been mostly a humbling experience for this county.
2010 was a noble exception but otherwise weâ€™ve struggled to stay in tow with the neighbours, at times even slumping to the role of whipping boys.
Now on the cusp of a new season that rivalry gets another airing. Once more bragging rights are on offer - not to mention league points - as the counties go toe-to-toe in a game that could well set the tone for 2013.
Memories of last August as well as opening-round defeats for both counties a fortnight ago add further spice to Sundayâ€™s collision at the Stadium.
Statistics donâ€™t lie. Since â€˜02 weâ€™ve had six championship dates with Kilkenny winning just one. In the same period weâ€™ve clashed a dozen times in the league; the â€˜Catsâ€™ hold an eight-four advantage in that particular sequence.
More embarrassing of course has been the nature of some of those defeats. Last August was the nadir, the father of all hidings but others too have left us cringing.
Our last league win over Kilkenny was in March 2010 at the Stadium. Liam Sheedy got agitated with Cody on the sideline that day but the four point win set the mood music for the entire season. Weâ€™d beaten the â€˜Catsâ€™ and that experience must have helped to fortify the side for September â€“ â€˜believeâ€™ was Oâ€™Sheaâ€™s slogan going into the All Ireland.
By contrast belief is in short supply this spring as Oâ€™Sheaâ€™s second coming stumbles at the early hurdles. The haunting memory of last August is still there in the background.
Now it is accompanied by that thrashing in Cork two weeks ago after an equally anaemic display against Clare in the Waterford Crystal. Single games can be an aberration but when a pattern develops itâ€™s time to worry.
No doubt the lead-in to this match will see events of last August revisited in the media. Expect the files to be raided for a few shots of last summerâ€™s circus just to enliven matters ahead of this latest clash. All eyes on Larry once again then but I assume there will be no repeat performance under Oâ€™Sheaâ€™s watch.
Actually itâ€™s probably an ideal opportunity for Corbett to banish the memory of August 19 and get back to doing what heâ€™s best at. Heâ€™s been in lively form recently both as an impact sub against Cork and again in Munsterâ€™s win over Galway at the weekend. That should see him well primed for a re-acquaintance with Jackie Tyrrell and company.
At least one assumes Corbett will form part of the Tipp offensive on Sunday though who will be beside him is more problematic. Thereâ€™s mention that army duty will keep â€˜Bonnerâ€™ Maher away and in any case his dip in form might be reason enough for a rest. Callanan and Oâ€™Meara were others to misfire in Cork and as a consequence they might also be overlooked this time. Of course all of that leaves limited options but we canâ€™t seriously go with the Cork formation once again.
Where to position Noel McGrath is another conundrum for the management? One body of opinion would send him to the bench for a spell given his tepid form recently, though Iâ€™m not sure we can afford that luxury. With Shane McGrath absent from midfield he might find a role in that zone once again, perhaps beside Woodlock or Adrian Ryan, the latter working well when introduced in Cork.
A major difficulty with the team is the lack of ball winners at half forward and when you scroll through the panel there are no obvious solutions to the problem. Given our limitations in that area it behoves goalie and defence to place deliveries wisely. In Cork at times it was a matter of hit and hope.
Injuries are certainly limiting options at the moment. Apart from Shane McGrath, who isnâ€™t expected to be ready, Gearoid Ryan, John Meagher, John Oâ€™Keeffe and John Oâ€™Neill are all being treated for a variety of ailments. Worryingly Padraig Maher didnâ€™t feature with Munster at the weekend with mention of a groin strain as the problem. Hopefully that will have mended sufficiently for Sunday. Conor Oâ€™Mahony is on the way back though maybe not sufficiently mended for this game.
Assuming Padraig Maher is ready the defence will probably be the least altered from the Cork game. Conor Oâ€™Brien took a knock at the weekend but hopefully heâ€™ll be okay. Curran, Donagh Maher, Brendan Maher and Paddy Stapleton are all in the mix as well as Michael Cahill who came on the last time. The option of moving Brendan Maher to midfield could enter the discussion too.
Up front players like Shane Bourke, Jason Forde, John Oâ€™Dwyer and Pa Bourke are all battling for places and I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if Eoin Kelly was a starter too given our limitations.
Of course Kilkenny too are likely to be short-staffed with injuries keeping a number of key players in the shadows, most notably Shefflin who will no doubt bide his time once more for the championship. Their opening loss to Galway was marginal enough (in contrast to our experience in Cork) so theyâ€™ll hardly face this game with the same trepidation as Tipperary.
Iâ€™ve no doubt Brian Codyâ€™s mind is always thinking ahead to bigger days and bigger games. He often sets down markers in the league dealing ruthlessly with any perceived threat to his kingdom. Bury a team in March and when August or September swings around there will be enough self-doubt there to derail a championship challenge.
Itâ€™s a treatment weâ€™re familiar with so expect no gifts this time either. Besides from a purely practical standpoint the loser on Sunday will be propping up the league table, not a role Kilkenny are accustomed to.
So, with plenty of background baggage to this game and given the dire need for points by both sides we can surely expect a stiff collision. In Tipperaryâ€™s case itâ€™s even more critical to find form after recent ineptitude. The public is already uneasy so letâ€™s not feed the despondency any further.
Above all Tipperary followers will demand an aggressive effort by the team. If that falls short on the scoreboard then so be it. We can live with defeat but not humiliation. Surely thereâ€™s enough pride and purpose in the team to have an uninhibited go. The optimism that Oâ€™Shea brought to the set-up is dissipating fast. Letâ€™s hope Sunday will be a turning point.
In case you didnâ€™t hear Munster won their 45th inter-provincial on Sunday beating Connacht, aka Galway, rather handily at Ennis. Brendan Maher had the honour of accepting the cup and with Liam Sheedy managing the side there was a healthy Tipperary presence at the event. Lar Corbett won praise for his efforts too alongside Cork and Limerick forwards who over-ran the opposition in the second half.
From official circles and from the players youâ€™ll hear high praise for this event, which refuses to die despite dire pronouncements over many years now. Mr. Donnelly continues to pump cash into the event so the association is happy to tag along despite public apathy. I didnâ€™t hear an official attendance figure for the game on Sunday other than being described as small by some reports. By now even the media has little interest in the event.
You know what I like about this tournament? It highlights how important the followers are to the games. Without the fans clicking through the turnstiles the games are dead. Followers create atmosphere and make events special and that is something that players would need to remember. The players may be of primary importance in the association but without followers the entire venture is meaningless.
For many years now the fans have deserted this tournament. No doubt there are many reasons for that. Times change and where once the Railway cup was a showcase for a Ring or a Mackey today thereâ€™s a proliferation of games where top players can be regularly seen. It doesnâ€™t carry the same glamour any more. Besides many years of tame exhibition-style games I suspect drained the interest from this series. Even Sundayâ€™s game, according to reports, was something of a second half stroll for Munster.
Even at club level followers will fork out cash to see a game of real passion and intensity where something significant is at stake. More casual encounters carry little appeal.
So my reaction to the inter-provincials is DNR, do not resuscitate. They have a certain sentimental appeal but sadly have outlived their usefulness.
P.S. In a week when Tipperary face into a crunch league game our sympathies go to county coach Paudie Oâ€™Neill and his family on the death of his father, John. A native of Lattin\Cullen in West Tipperary he made Clonmel his home and watched his sons excel with the local clubs. Always friendly and amiable he was well known among the farming community especially. May he rest in peace.