Cork-Tipperary finally transfer Munster rivalry to Croke Park

Premier County on the receiving end in 1997 final against Clare when provincial rivals first met at headquarters

Clare defender Seán McMahon (left) tackles Declan Ryan of Tipperary during the 1997 All-Ireland hurling final, the first time intra-provincial rivals met at the venue. Photograph:  Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Clare defender Seán McMahon (left) tackles Declan Ryan of Tipperary during the 1997 All-Ireland hurling final, the first time intra-provincial rivals met at the venue. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

 

Tipperary’s clash with Cork this Sunday in the second hurling semi-final means that of the Munster hurling rivalries only Cork versus Limerick has yet to be played at Croke Park in the final stages of the championship.

Cork-Tipp is the definitive Munster championship rivalry and 17 years into the reformed All-Ireland format it finally arrives on Jones’s Road and the likelihood is it will establish an attendance record for the fixture, topping the 61,175 who attended the 1961 provincial final in Limerick.

Back in 1997 Tipperary were involved in the first intra-provincial All-Ireland final when they reprised the Munster decider against Clare.

The county had lost that match by three points but the path to an All-Ireland semi-final was less complicated in those days because second chances were only given to provincial finalists up until five years later when hurling followed football’s example and instituted a qualifier system, giving all teams a second chance.

Tipp caused a surprise in the semi-final when beating Leinster and All-Ireland champions Wexford to reach the final. Unlike Sunday, the county was playing a team it had already lost to but according to All-Ireland winner and multiple All Star Michael Cleary this didn’t create any disorientation.

“To be honest, not a lot. I think the tradition was for Munster players to feel they were going somewhere when they got to play in Croke Park. We had beaten Down in the quarter-final in Clones and found ourselves back in Croke Park.

“On a personal level, I remember that season as my first and last chance to get out for a final in the new Croke Park, which was beginning to emerge.

“I knew at that stage I was on my way out. My feeling after the Munster final was we hadn’t played well and still were within a puck of the ball of them. Ironically you could have said the same thing after the All-Ireland.”

It might have been strange for Tipperary manager Len Gaynor in that he had managed Clare in the early years of the county’s revival but on the field it was simply a final.

“It was an All-Ireland final and that was all we were thinking. Maybe an established rivalry like Cork and Tipperary this weekend might feel strange because they’ve played so often in Munster, although there was a growing rivalry between ourselves and Clare at the time.

“I do remember the sense that history was in the making because the two of us were from the same province. But unfortunately in the end it wasn’t us making the history.”

The match itself was a belter, with Tipperary hanging on through second-half goals and actually taking the lead late in the match. Points by Ollie Baker and James O’Connor swung the verdict back in Clare’s favour.

Coincidentally, John Leahy who had miss-hit a late goal chance in the Munster final found himself with a terrific opportunity in the dying moments of the All-Ireland but Clare goalkeeper and now manager David Fitzgerald made a crucial save.

In a surprising difference of opinion Gaynor and Cleary disagree on the value of the second-chance format, even though Tipperary would in time become beneficiaries of the qualifiers four years ago when defeating Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final.

“I suppose the big reason for it was that counties were putting in a lot of work for a small return,” says Gaynor. “Maybe it was felt as well that it would help the weaker counties but it hasn’t turned out that way. The stronger are able to regroup and make the best of their second chance.

“It keeps the championship alive for most counties for much longer and makes all the work that goes into preparation worthwhile.

“I think it’s hard to find a better system. People talk about Champions League but there would be very little interest among neutrals in a lot of the league matches and even in the counties unless they still had a chance of getting through.”

For Cleary though the idea of second chances and being able to plot different routes to the All-Ireland contradicts something in the all-or-nothing nature of hurling.

“I’m a little old-fashioned in my beliefs on this,” he says. “I’d prefer to go back to pure knock-out hurling. I don’t think this system sits well with the dynamic of hurling, which is a warrior game – a game of last man standing after beating everyone you come up against.”

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