History repeats itself as Cork end drought and Tipperary lick wounds

Tipp’s inability to retain an All-Ireland since 1965 inevitably comes into renewed focus

Cork’s Patrick Horgan fends off the attention of Tipperary’s Padraic Maher during last Sunday’s mathc. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Cork’s Patrick Horgan fends off the attention of Tipperary’s Padraic Maher during last Sunday’s mathc. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

A little bit of history repeating itself. In a couple of weeks it will be 25 years ago that Paddy Downey opened his report on the 1992 Munster semi-final between All-Ireland champions Tipperary and Cork with this self-recrimination:

“When will we ever learn? Those of us who have been around the hurling circuit for a long time should have known that it is insane to plump for one side or the other when Cork and Tipperary meet in the Munster senior championship.”

Thurles was echoing to the cackles of Munster hurling ghosts on Sunday evening and all the old cliches arose from their graves and walked Semple Stadium. Cark are Cark. Like mushrooms they are, boy.

Except they’re not, really.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that cliches become cliches because they are generally true and regularly applicable but in the recent past when we declared the end of history and the death of Cork’s mystique – every now and then over the past decade – it was because it also was true at the time.

How could anyone argue with Dónal Cusack’s statement of affairs as recited on The Sunday Game in 2015, which placed Cork solidly bottom of a Munster league table based on all hurling’s tributaries from senior, minor and under-21 titles to club and schools between 2009 and 2015?

Is there a disposition to believe that we all live in different and more challenging times? Probably, but the eternal nature of hurling’s big three suggests that things have rarely changed beyond recognition in 130 years of hurling.

Notable drought

Accepting all of that, Cork’s drought has been indeed historically notable – this year, for instance, equals the senior gap of 12 years since the most recent Liam MacCarthy, bridged memorably in 1966 and four off the record of 16 between 1903 and 1919 – but along the way they lost out on an All-Ireland in 2013 by a matter of seconds, a loss that resonated because it removed a trophy that could have been a reference point for the rest of the decade.

The county has been keen in the days since the weekend to play down the significance of the result – “only a quarter-final” etc – and it would be a stretch to say that they have suddenly become All-Ireland contenders, but they have road-tested a young team – a third of them making a full debut – and look re-energised even if a work in progress.

John Grainger, the UCC GAA games development officer, entered a note of caution on Monday when he said of the newcomers, four of whom have been through the college, that there would inevitably be days when “they will be awful”, but that they would learn from that as well.The five debutants – the same number as Jimmy Barry-Murphy fielded in 1999 – may be mushrooms but they’ve been in compost pots out the back for a while now.

If some of the talk that surrounds a rising Cork team is shibboleth, it remains the case that the personality of the county’s hurling feeds off the idea that they come from nowhere, pure hurling ranged against whatever the latest fad is and able to suck confidence like oxygen from the air. 

Different competitions

Yet there are also facts or to be more precise form and its modern manifestation. League and championship aren’t separate productions any more. In the past poor league form could be parked and a new persona discovered for championship and vice versa – in the 1990s, five managers of league-winning counties were gone by the end of summer, having lost their first big match in the championship.

It’s more of a continuum now. Form comes on a different frequency than previously and since the introduction of the calendar year 20 seasons ago, as little oscillation as possible is desirable. That doesn’t mean a team has to do well in the league but its form shouldn’t fluctuate wildly.

 A year ago Cork lost all of their regulation matches and stayed in Division 1A because they won the relegation play-off. After that they folded meekly enough against Tipperary in the championship.

This season it is easy to forget that Kieran Kingston’s team, featuring a crop of young talents, ended up in second place and if the quarter-final exit against Limerick suggested a downbeat conclusion, the team was hugely improved on 2016.

Form in Tipperary’s case also played its part. As pointed out by Irish Times columnist Nicky English, after Sunday in Thurles Tipp have now completed a sequence of four top-class matches against Kilkenny, Cork twice and Galway and haven’t won any.

High water mark

It’s tempting to look at the 22nd minute of the Kilkenny league match on March 11th as the high water mark for Tipperary. Leading their recently deposed rivals by eight points, the All-Ireland champions were on course to confirm their supremacy after three straight wins in the league up to that point.

Somehow, momentum was lost and against the county that always detected self-doubt like a shark finding blood in the water, Tipp ended up slightly lucky to get a draw. Since then they have beaten only Wexford, admittedly a robust and confident team having won promotion, and Offaly.

Their irradiation in the league final was merely confirming an already apparent – albeit accelerated – trajectory. It was also noted in the aftermath that the county’s three league wins came against the counties, Dublin and Clare, who were missing key players because of Ballyea’s and Cuala’s All-Ireland run, plus a Waterford side that after two league finals, including a replay, more or less decided to sit this one out having distanced relegation.

If it looks suspiciously like more shibboleths, Tipp’s unfailing inability to retain All-Irelands since 1965 inevitably came into focus. I’m as reluctant as any cautious observer to demand that what was the best team in the country a few months ago be moved from the Hall of Fame to a psychiatric clinic but they need to regain whatever motivation drove them last year and they have continually struggled to do that as champions.

They’re not gone yet but it’s not looking great at the moment. And Cork? Cork are Cork.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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