Premier men need to stand and deliver when their chief tormentors come calling
Tipperary's Noel McGrath with JJ Delaney and John Dalton of Kilkenny during the 2010 league clash. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Tipperary v Kilkenny: Following the defeat in Cork, Tipperary are in dire need of a big performance
It was this weekend three years ago that Tipperary and Kilkenny finally got to play their league opener that wasn’t a league opener at all. Snow had nixed the original effort at getting the game played under lights at Semple Stadium in February and by the time they got around to refixing the thing, the league was three rounds in.
Although Kilkenny had yawned their way through a summary justice session with Offaly the previous weekend, Tipp had endured an undressing at Parnell Park from Dublin during which they’d only managed five points in the whole second half. So on a Sunday afternoon of eye-watering cold, they poured a crowd of 20,254 through the turnstiles – admission was free on account of the original abandonment having come late in the day – and the two sides set about each other like stoats in a sack.
It was no classic. Tipp only had to put up 1-14 for the victory, their lowest winning total against Kilkenny in the Brian Cody era. It was sturm und drang stuff, where even that modest tally left Tipp with four points to spare at the end.
At one point near home time Cody and Liam Sheedy squared up on the sideline, vertical manifestations of the horizontal swiping that was going on inside the lines. The last act was a dropped-in 65 that Brendan Cummins caught and cleared to swells of raucous yahooing from the stands.
The league didn’t amount to a hill of beans for either side that year – Cork and Galway contested a final they had both qualified comfortably for before the final round of group games – but nobody doubted the worth of Tipp’s win in Thurles that day. They had come out on the wrong side of two high-scoring league encounters the previous year and patently set out to make this one much less of a can-can extravaganza.
The elemental nature of it on and off the pitch told you all you needed to know about where the two sides were. The league they could take or leave. The specific result was granted no such leeway. Not in those years anyway.
“I remember in ’09 when we won the four in a row,” says Derek Lyng, “we had two league games against Tipp that year and you could see that they were coming. They were really driven and really serious about those games. They had players like Pádraic Maher and Noel McGrath bursting onto the scene and even though we won those two games, each game was closer than the last.
“As they were going on, you could see the improvement in them. They were anxious to get one over on us and that made it the same vice-versa. We knew they were coming to challenge us and it made us want to keep them at arms’ length and keep them down.
“It took on a life of its own after that, with the All-Ireland finals in ’09 and ’10 and ’11 and a good few league games in between times. The league games became seriously hard matches around those years. You wouldn’t say there was one league game that wasn’t really tough and contested.”
Michael Ryan was a selector on the other end of Sheedy’s earpiece that day, just as he is again now that Eamon O’Shea is in the big chair.
Though Tipp and Kilkenny has never historically been a fixture in need of a frisson, Ryan freely concedes it was turned up to 11 in that period. It didn’t matter that they mostly took place before the clocks had gone back each year, these were championship matches dressed up in league attire.
“We had some fabulous battles with them,” says Ryan. “Even reasonably early on in the time when we played them in Thurles in 2009. There was an intensity to it that set the tone for the year for us.
“Part of it would be going out and saying we wanted to put down a marker for the year. But games take on their own significance too. That game in 2010, we came in after taking an absolute hiding off Dublin and we needed badly to put down a marker for ourselves.”
Context was all. This will be the fourth year in a row where the first meeting of the two teams will pit one county against the team who put them out of the previous year’s championship. For three years in a row, it was the first chance for the beaten All-Ireland finalist to gulp in some of the air that had been punched out the September before. Tipp won that 2010 game with the same internal seething than Kilkenny used to win the 2011 encounter. The verdict went to the side whose need was greater on both occasions.
“You want to get the previous year out of your system as quickly as possible,” says Lyng. “And there’s no better way to do it than to beat the team who beat you. It’s a matter of putting it to bed and being able to go into training the following week saying, ‘Well, we beat the All-Ireland champions so we can kick on now’.
“If you were hanging onto anything from the previous year, a good league win over them can do you the world of good. It gives you confidence, both individually and as a team. It’s not do or die but you can get something out of it.”
That was then. We’re not exactly a generation removed from it but hurling’s house has a different aspect to it now.
Kilkenny have the top floor to themselves again, with Tipp scuttling about the lounge downstairs alongside everybody else.
Hindsight tells us that the canary in the coalmine for Declan Ryan’s side last year was the anaemic afternoon’s work they put in in Nowlan Park for the league opener. The thump and thunder of the turn of the decade was nowhere to be seen and Kilkenny had an eight-point win wrapped up in a bow long before the end. There was no revenge for the 2011 final, not the merest hint of it.
And now this. Tipp go into tomorrow’s Allianz game in Semple with bigger fish to flambé than the last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. After what happened in Cork a fortnight ago, they’re not so much looking at getting back on the horse as trying to find the stable again.
The days when they could group themselves and Cody’s men in a bracket apart from the rest might not be gone for the year but they’re gone for now. No point pretending otherwise.
“You have to acknowledge where Kilkenny are at,” says Ryan. “They’re the team of the past decade, they’re the ones who have given a whole new perspective to what consistency is and where the standard is at.
“They’re the benchmark. They bring the best out of everyone they play and they put you to the sword if you don’t bring your best. They even put you to the sword sometimes when you do bring your best.
“It’s important for the Tipp public that we perform. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think that it’s necessarily important that it’s Kilkenny. It’s just important for this group of players because we didn’t perform down in Cork and we paid a high price for that. There were no positives at all to come out of the Cork game. None. We need to get back to a level of performance that we’re happy with.
“This is game two of five in the league and it’s no more or less than that. It’s for ourselves. We absolutely acknowledge that we were terrible against Cork and it wouldn’t matter one way or the other who we were playing on Sunday.”
Tipp and Kilkenny will always matter, it’s just that for a while there it mattered more. League and championship still lived apart from each other but the distance was walkable. Closing it again is Tipperary’s first job.
Tipperary v Kilkenny Classic clashes
2008: Tipperary 1-15 Kilkenny 1-10 – Tipperary’s first meeting with Kilkenny under Liam Sheedy, a National League semi-final in Nowlan Park. Eddie Brennan had the inevitable goal scored inside the first two minutes but Tipp struck back quickly through Lar Corbett. Four points up at half-time, Tipp saw it out with scores from Eoin Kelly and Séamus Callanan.
2009: (1) Kilkenny 5-17 Tipperary 1-12 – A thorough rinsing that started badly for Tipp and got worse every minute. Again Kilkenny started like they had the meter running, spearing goals from everywhere. They led 3-8 to 0-4 after 20 minutes and went in at the break 20 points ahead. Game over.
2009: (2) Kilkenny 2-26 Tipperary 4-17 – Six weeks later in the final, everyone expected another washout but instead we got a classic. Tipp had two goals on the board inside 10 minutes. Kilkenny came back at them and looked to have won it late on with a Richie Hogan free. Noel McGrath forced extra-time but Kilkenny came through.
2010: Tipperary 1-14 Kilkenny 0-13 – After losing three games to Kilkenny the previous year, Tipp weren’t losing this one. A drag-down, knock-out affair that fizzed and spat inside the whitewash and beyond it too. Eoin Kelly’s 1-7 was enough for Sheedy’s side to end the losing sequence.