By Brian McDonnell
Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. Forty-six years have elapsed since Tipperary last placed All-Ireland titles back to back. And although armchair strategists regard Tipperary as favourites to beat Cork and, in more breathless calculations, as a side capable of emulating that 1965 vintage Premier captain Eoin Kelly is having none of it.
“There’s no mention of that and I mean that now,” insisted the Mullinahone man.
“The way we’re looking at it is that we’re not Munster champions. A Munster medal is a prestigious medal to have. You go through lads like Brendan Cummins there who is 35 years of age and he has only three Munster championship medals. That’s unbelievable. He has only three for such a player. You want to win the Munster championship. For any hurler, be it past of present, it’s a prestigious medal to win,” Eoin Kelly added.
“The Munster championship is serious and I don’t think any player, be it from Cork, Waterford, Limerick, Tipperary or Clare, wants to see the Munster championship gone because it just brings out something in players; it’s a serious, serious championship.”
On Sunday Eoin Kelly will make his 50th championship appearance and while he knows that Declan Ryan has great means at his disposal Kelly also knows that sustaining success is much harder than achieving it in the first place. Kelly knows too that there has never been a decaffeinated Cork-Tipp clash.
“We know the task that is ahead of us. I know that people will harp on about Tipp last year, but Tipp and Cork matches throw up freak results at times don’t they? I remember going to a Munster final in 1990 and Tipp were going for four in-a-row and it didn’t happen. There’s great respect there between Tipp and Cork and there’s great rivalry and I’m sure it will be no different on Sunday,” Eoin Kelly argued.
Since making his debut in 2000 the Mullinahone man has faced Cork eight times and lost on five occasions - Cork are fierce local rivals and when local pride is at stake losing in a timid fashion is not an option. In 2007, 2008 and 2009 Tipperary had accounted for Cork before suffering a ten-point defeat (0-14 to 3-15) last summer. From that game the charge sheet remains a daunting one. It’s a performance Kelly would rather forget: “We were just so flat that day. I mean if Liam Sheedy could have made 13 subs that day he would have made them. There were probably only one or two lads that performed any bit.
“Aisake (Ó hAilpín) that day was awesome. I remember standing down at corner-forward and wondering what was going to happen next because there seemed to something happening every time the ball was going down. The encouraging thing from our point of view is that we got over that defeat and we drove on, but you hope that lads gain serious experience from that loss.”
Similarly, Paddy Stapleton doesn’t enjoy revisiting the memories of the game, a game the Borris-Ileigh man believed Tipperary were ready for. Before last year’s clash Stapleton reckoned that you could gauge where a team was at from training, but now the corner-back knows that peak performance is a much more elusive concept and that Tipp won’t know where they stand until the ball is thrown in.
“I thought last year that you could know if you were ready, but I don’t think you know until your first championship match if the attitude, the fitness, the hurling and the skill level is up to the required standard,” Paddy Stapleton told the Tipperary Star.
“There are things in training that you can judge it off, but I don’t think you could ever really know until that first match.”
Stapleton, who will appear in his 12th championship match this Sunday, believes the players will be sharper this time round: “After last year players are more questioning of themselves in their preparation. Last year, obviously, we didn’t realise until the Cork match that our preparation was not up to standard. This year I think people are trying to say to themselves ‘am I giving everything that I am supposed to be giving’ and I think we are. If you find a group of players that are questioning themselves constantly they have to be prepared for a match”.
Irrespective of last year’s humiliation in Páirc Uí Chaoimh (Tipperary have only lost by ten points or more on eight championship occasions) Stapleton does not believe that Declan Ryan’s players should use revenge as a motivating factor: “I think it’s too dangerous. Maybe some players in their own head would use it, but if you’re talking about revenge it’s bringing up emotions there and I don’t know - if you’re going into a battle like Cork - that it’s right to have those emotions up inside in you.
“You have to be very clinical in championship hurling and very cool and have your temperament right. So, while maybe one or two may use it as some sort of motivation in the gym or to go that extra few yards in a training session I think that when you get out there in the heat of battle there should be enough motivation and focus without having to refer to something from last year.”
Tipperary, as an attacking force, always appear to have more tentacles when Noel McGrath is about, but even the obscenely-talented Loughmore-Castleiney man regards last year’s defeat to Cork as a low point.
“From my own point of view I had not experienced anything like that before in a Tipp jersey,” Noel McGrath explained.
“The result was a big disappointment and not to perform up to scratch was a big disappointment as well. I suppose it’s in the past now and we’ll try to make sure that doesn’t happen this year and be ready for the Cork challenge.”
On Saturday evneing Noel McGrath will relax at home and maybe throw an eye at the Champions League final which pits his beloved Manchester United against the might of Barcelona at Wembley. It will be hard, however, to avoid thinking about facing the Rebels in Semple Stadium.
“We know that this year it will be the same again,” McGrath insisted.
“They will bring a big performance to Thurles and we’ll have to be ready for that. We have been going well so, hopefully, we will be ready for it.”
And, McGrath does not even want to consider the back door: “Everyone wants to go the direct route through the championship. At this stage you’re just not thinking of things like that, you’re just focused on the game and focused on getting the performance right for the match against Cork”.