Preview - Eamonn Wynne
Photos – John D. Kelly
Describing Sunday’s Munster Senior Hurling Championship quarter-final between Tipperary and Cork as a game of huge significance is an understatement.
Not only will the game mark Tipp’s first defence of their All-Ireland crown, it will also present the county with an opportunity to erase the bitter memories still lingering from the same stage last year, when Cork battered them by 10 points at Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
Ultimately, that result hardly mattered in the greater scheme of things when Tipp finished the season shrouded in glory. But such is the nature of the rivalry between the counties that exacting revenge for that defeat, the only blot on an otherwise unblemished championship run last season, will surely serve as motivation for Tipp when the teams engage in battle at 4 o’clock at Semple Stadium on Sunday.
If the bookmakers are to be believed then there can only be one outcome. Tipp are hot favourites at 5/2-on, Cork are 9/4 and the draw is a 10/1 chance.
While the form book and a reasonable analysis of the sides would tend to support those odds, logic tends to fly out the window when these two meet; Tipp travelled south almost 12 months to the day fully expected to win, and look how that turned out. Similarly, Tipp unexpectedly turned the tables on The Rebels in 2007 in an All-Ireland qualifier.
It may be a cliché but Cork really do love Thurles and have reserved some of their finest displays down the years for Semple Stadium. With good reason, Tipp will be wary of the red jersey.
A new dawn broke for Tipp with the appointment of Declan Ryan as manager. So far, his accession to the hot seat - one that former boss Liam Sheedy made even warmer with last September’s All-Ireland success – appears to have been seamless.
The Clonoulty man brought in Tommy Dunne as his coach and the two have already nurtured some of the county’s finest young talent – including Padraic Maher, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher, Michael Cahill, Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher and Seamus Hennessy – when they oversaw the All-Ireland Minor triumph of 2007.
Michael Gleeson, who also served as selector in that Minor success four years ago, completes the management team. Cian O’Neill, the trainer in the last regime, has remained, as has team doctor Peter Murchan, providing continuity from last year’s successful backroom team.
Ryan has gone about his business in a typically calm, no-nonsense and measured way, but his laid-back style shouldn’t be interpreted as a weakness. He hasn’t been afraid to make the hard calls. Fellow Clonoulty man Timmy Hammersly, despite scoring a point in the opening league game against Kilkenny, was subsequently jettisoned from the panel as was another West player, Eire Og Annacarty’s Conor O’Brien, who appeared as a substitute in last year’s All-Ireland Final.
As they recovered from the exertions of last year and started planning for this season, their National League campaign was nothing to write home about. However there was evidence in the performances against Waterford, Offaly and especially Galway that the side still had something potent in reserve for the summer.
The spate of injuries that affected the panel earlier this year has cleared to the point that, at the time of writing, Brendan Maher (broken ankle) and Seamus Hennessy (knee) will be the only absentees.
Maher’s loss will be particularly felt, as he had started the season strongly and looked a certainty for a berth in midfield.
Cork have been riven by internal strife in recent years and there’s a suggestion that all is still not well down Leeside way. Sean Og O’hAilpin, who was dropped by manager Denis Walsh in the autumn, re-opened old wounds recently by announcing that he would be prepared to return to the fold, but only under a different manager.
Ahead of Sunday The Rebels had injury concerns surrounding defender Ronan Curran and midfielder Patrick Cronin, although Cronin was causing the least concern.
The All-Ireland champions, though, are unlikely to be distracted by any of Cork’s difficulties, real or imagined. Tipp haven’t beaten them in their last three meetings – losing last year in the league and championship and drawing this year’s league clash at Pairc Ui Chaoimh – so a win for the home team is overdue.
The rivalry between the counties is as pronounced as that between Tipp and any of the other hurling strongholds, even if it doesn’t have the bitter residue sometimes associated with their clashes against, say, Kilkenny and Waterford.
There’s a healthy respect between the counties, although that doesn’t lessen their desire to put one over on each other. Even at this early stage of the championship season, no one will be holding back in the white heat of Sunday’s battle.