By Noel Dundon
Tipperary and Cork will square up to each other for the eight season in a row in the senior hurling championship on Sunday afternoon next The Rebels visit Semple Stadium hoping to repeat last year whitewash of The Premier County.
How quickly the season comes around again - it only seems like yesterday that Liam Sheedy’s men were left smarting after a Rebel ambush in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, before emerging to claim the ultimate crown on All-Ireland Final day in September.
All that is history now though and as Tipp and Cork ready themselves to cross the battle lines, the contrast between the two could hardly be more different.
Tipperary are back with silverware in toe, but with a new management team, a new look and a new jersey. The emotional journey travelled in 2010, and before, in the Sheedy era is now past tense and Declan Ryan’s men find themselves at the bottom of the well accompanied by all of the rest of the teams in the race for Liam McCarthy.
There too, are Denis Walsh’s charges, hoping to ignite a fuse of enthusiasm on Leeside, which has been transferred to the football code of late. They were the only championship team to defeat Tipperary in 2010 and what a spectactular defeat that was - a mauling of gigantic proportions, so large that it was dubbed a complete freak.
From a Tipperary perspective it proved to be just the kind of wake-up-call necessary and led to a forensic examination of conscience which resulted in the unearthing of the gems to finish off the diamond cluster.
Patrick ‘Bonnar’ Maher (Lorrha Dorrha) and Gearoid Ryan (Templederry) staked claims in the aftermath and proved to be major players in Tipperary’s rejuvenation.
Cork love coming to Thurles, and Tipp love having them there. The same kind of scenario does not work in reverse - Tipperary have a major dislike for a Pairc Ui Chaoimh which has seen far more blue and gold defeats than victories.
Many of the epic battles which have gone down in folklore between the two provincial standard bearers were played out in the Field of Legends and there is no reason to suggest that Sunday’s won’t be another chapter in that particular book.
After all, it’s the classic underdog coming to town to knock the champions off their perch. Shades of 1990 perhaps?
The All-Ireland champions have had an indifferent season to date with quite a few injuries hampering game flow.
Brendan Maher is still out after that freakish ankle break at home; Seamus Hennessy (Kilruane MacDonagh) is still out; Patrick Maher (Lorrha Dorrha) is coming right; captain Eoin Kelly (Mullinahone) broke a finger but should be OK; 2010 Lar Corbett (Sarsfields) has been in and out with a hamstring problem; Pa Bourke (Sarsfields) damaged his AC joint; as well as a hot of other minor niggles and illnesses.
But, the good news is that all are available for selection apart from Brendan Maher and Hennessy.
On the positive side, back into the picture has come Drom-Inch’s James Woodlock.
The energetic midfielder has put the horrible leg break of 2009 in the dying moments of the County Final against Sarsfields, behind him; has rehabilitated mind and body; and has worked his way back into the minds of the selection team - a scenario many predicted might not happen, considering the extent of his injuries. Woodlock’s determination to succeed has been an inspiration to the other panel members as well.
Tiperary will do well to remember the old adage about being wary of a ‘quiet’ Cork side.
They are masters of the unexpected and while much of the focus has been on the period of transition presently underway, Cork will trouble Tipperary on Sunday, if taken for granted in any way, shape or form.
They have done it before and will do it again. With experienced campaigners in every line of the pitch, Cork will hurt Tipperary if given the chance.
Yes, they have discarded some - Sean Og O’hAilpin being the obvious example.
But, they have also jettisoned some of the mental cargo which was weighing them down in recent times, in favour of just getting out and doing the business on the field.
The only strikes they are interested in nowadays are of the ash on sliothar variety and this is where Tipperary need to be on their guard.
Denis Walsh has worked away quietly in the background ensuring that his players are progressing nicely. He has put the building blocks in place and used the likes of Tom Kenny, Donal Og Cusack, Ronan Curran, John Gardiner, Pa Cronin and the O’Connors as the cornerstones - all big time players, who could come out, in all confidence, and proclaim that these guys are past it?
Declan Ryan said as much when he spoke to The Tipperary Star this week.
“Any time Cork come to Thurles they bring huge value to the game of hurling.
“They are great sportspeople and we all know that these games between Tipperary and Cork take on a life of their own.
“We are expecting them to come and be very physical and strong. We are ready for them though and it has been a help that we know how their training and preparations have gone.
“They have had good results in challenge games and we are expecting a typical Cork championship challenge. They are very strong up to number nine and in terms of physicality, they blew us out of the water last year down in Cork,” Declan said.
Selector Michael Gleeson supported him when he added, “We expect a massive battle from Cork.
“I don’t know if it was complacency last year or what, but it was a real wake-up call.
“What happened in 2010 is water under the bridge now though -we have to concentrate on the here and now and it is up to us ( management) to put our stamp on things and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
While both men are new to the senior management lark, they also have extensive experience with the Tipp minors, and with club teams - the kind of experience that steels you for the tough days and the intense pressure of big match days.
“I find at the moment that it is very different from the minor set-up, but it has been a big help having been involved with a lot of the lads already at that level.
“We had built up a rapport with many of them and while there is always a lead in time as you get to know each other, the fact that we had worked well already was a help.
“In many ways, the league was about getting to know the players and if that meant winning, well and good. If it didn’t, it wasn’t the end of the world.
“We set out to be in a position at the end of the league that we knew more about our players and we are happy enough that we achieved that.
“When you are watching players three or four times a week, you get to know them pretty quickly,” Michael Gleeson said.
Declan was grateful for the help given to him by former Boss Liam Sheedy in the initial stages and says that while he was handed a very strong squad - All-Ireland champions after all - he feels that they have built on that already.
“Liam passed on a lot of good advice to us and of course he left us with a fine bunch of players.
“We have been lucky to bring in a lot of new players and we have maybe a few more options than last year.
“I would definitely say that we are a stronger squad coming out of the league than we were going into it.
“We raised the bar a lot after the Galway game and we are really looking forward to Cork now. We have prepared very well and trained hard since Christmas. We have a top class bunch of players and that is a huge help to us,” Declan said.
The Clonoulty Rossmore man has not been surprised by the level of expectation in Tipperary or by the level of media interest in his side. He describes it as part of the job and points to the efficient backroom team in place in Tipperary which is a major help in managing the expectation across all sectors. “The level of coverage from the media is great for the promotion of the games - long may it last,” he says.
Although Tipperary used quite a few players in the National Hurling league - thirty five in the seven outings to be precise - Declan confessed last week to being 90% settled on his format to face Cork.
Ten players made their Allianz League debuts during this year’s campaign – Shane Bourke, Sean Carey, John Coghlan, Eddie Connolly, Paddy Fanning, Michael Gleeson, Paddy Murphy, John O’Keeffe, Brian O’Meara and John O’Neill, while 22 players managed to get on the scoresheet. 20 clubs from across the Premier County are represented on the panel at present. The team will be announced after training tomorrow night (Thursday).
Michael Gleeson’s rise to the top has been meteoric.
He returned to Thurles from Dublin almost twenty years ago and began coaching the u-12’s in Durlas Og.
He progressed up through the ranks and was “very honoured” to be asked to be a minor selector with Declan having guided Sarsfields to titles in the grade.
Then, having worked the oracle at senior level with the club and being synonmous with the recent emergence of the Blues as a force, he was thrilled to take up the challenge in one of the must sought after management administrations in the country.
“It has been a real journey so far - an honour to have been asked. We said that we would give it 100% for our two year term - whether we are successful or not remains to be seen, but it won’t be for the want of trying anyway,” he said.
As for Declan, as he faces the ‘auld enemy’ from outside the tramlines and watches over his young lions doing the donkey work, you get the feeling that he would love to turn back the clock and don the boots again.
“Ah, the game is at a different level nowadays - it is much faster, the players are much fitter, and the ball is flying now.
“But, the lads in the squad are just the same as we were in our time - the aim is to be as good as we can be and to get the best out of them on the pitch.
“The generation thing is not an issue,” he says.
Tipp folk will be hoping that Declan, Michael and Tommy Dunne can achieve their goal and help the players to be as good as they can be.