Last week there would have been long odds against Sunday’s Tipperary-Cork clash in Thurles being anything other than an afterthought. But the Clare-Limerick draw last weekend put those counties into the Munster final and left a potential three-way split for the province’s third and final All-Ireland qualifying place.
For that to happen Waterford must lose in Ennis against a Clare side that’s unlikely to be at full tilt and Tipperary must defeat Cork – leaving all three on two points. Tipp have to win by at least seven and hope that Waterford lose by eight or more if they are to perform the feat of claiming third place after losing their first three matches.
In contrast to the trend of recent years Tipp are outsiders in this most traditional of pairings. Since the 2006 Munster final there have been 11 meetings between the counties and Cork have won just two.
In another encouraging trend for Tipperary, the winners of the fixture haven’t always been favourites and after last week’s unexpected victory over Waterford, Cork are well backed to secure a first win in the fixture in five years.
A veteran of many of these matches, former Tipperary All-Ireland winning captain and Hurler of the Year Eoin Kelly believes that the trend is encouraging for his county.
“They’ll go out to win the game first,” he says, “but if they smell any weakness they are well capable of turning over this Cork team and winning by seven points. They’ll go for it. It’s a hard ask but not impossible.
“My experience of Cork-Tipp runs from 2000. At that stage they hadn’t played for a long time – eight years I think – but from then on Cork won every game up until 2007 when they were again expected to win and it was a big upset when they didn’t.
“After that the only games Cork won were in 2010 when Aisake Ó hAilpín scored all the goals and then in 2017 when Tipp were All-Ireland champions. In 2018 Cork were 10 points up at half-time and Tipp came out and drew the game.
“But overall in recent years Tipp are in the ascendancy. Even when it came to under-21 and under-20 All-Ireland finals which Cork were meant to win, Tipperary won both years. If Cork win this at the weekend it will stand to them, not just this year but for a while to come.”
In the space of less than two years Tipperary have gone from defending All-Ireland champions into a period of major transition under new manager Colm Bonnar. Retirements, including the injury-enforced departure of Pádraic Maher, have combined with long-term injuries and other absences to deprive the team of its first-choice 15.
Two of the most lethal forwards, former HOTY Séamus Callanan and Jason Forde, are currently rehabbing, and two of the most promising graduates from the recent All-Ireland successes, Bryan O'Mara and Ciarán Connolly, who had starred for UL in this year's Fitzgibbon Cup, decided to travel.
They opened their campaign with a determined but ultimately unsuccessful contest with Waterford at Walsh Park and a hugely disappointing home defeat by Clare before trying to respond with a trip to Limerick to take on the champions, who they pushed to the final minutes before late goals finished them.
“Taking the history into account,” says Kelly, “we have Tipp at home, desperate not to finish bottom of the table with no points, potentially putting Cork out of the championship. They’ve a very slim chance of getting through but I think they’re going to come with something and they have a chance. This is a sticky game for Cork.
“Despite the cards that Tipperary were dealt and the nearly weekly litany of blows, they have stayed quiet and went about their business. I think as a group, they’ll want to finish with a win and see if it takes them anywhere.”
For all the optimistic omens Kelly is disappointed by the lack of atmosphere leading up to what is after all championship match between Cork and Tipperary in Thurles.
“There’s very little talk about it for a match of this importance. I suppose we had chances in the first game against Waterford quite late and the Clare defeat was soul-destroying so there aren’t many expectations among the public. But the players themselves won’t be happy and will want to win.
"Fellas like Noel McGrath and Ronan Maher aren't going to be happy to write off a match against Cork because the team's in transition and the public expectations are low!"