“It was hard to believe how poor Tipperary were. This was their biggest championship defeat since 1897, I don’t know what was going on, it was confusing and embarrassing.”
Those were some the thoughts of RTÉ commentator Michael Duignan on the Sunday Game on the evening of the All-Ireland semi-final in 2012.
Tipperary – All-Ireland champions in 2010 and finalists the year previous – had lost by 18 points to their toughest rival Kilkenny in what was, at times, a bizarre encounter.
In the second period, Declan Ryan’s side were outscored by 3-15 to just five points in what was an utter collapse by the Premier County.
However, the game will always be remembered for the ‘sideshow’ that took place between Lar Corbett and Tommy Walsh during the game when it appeared as though the Tipperary forward was tasked with dogging Walsh to curb his influence and bring their respective markers Jackie Tyrrell and Pa Bourke out of the game. Needless to say, the tactic backfired.
Corbett, the scorer of a hattrick which brought Tipperary to glory just two years previously, was vilified by angry and upset Tipperary fans after the game with rumours immediately beginning to spread about the tactics and a supposed ‘bust-up’ between the Thurles Sarsfields man and his management at half-time.
Corbett didn’t shy away from addressing the game in his honest and frank autobiography ‘All In My Head’ written with Damian Lawlor which was published later that year.
“I always knew the chance for redemption against Kilkenny would come [after the 2011 final]”, he began.
“But redemption never came. In fact, it was the opposite. We collapsed and got a hiding. You can call it sour grapes, you can say I bottled it or you can call me a shirker – I don’t really mind, but this is my view on what went down.”
Corbett admitted that he would have preferred to play his traditional brand of hurling but he knew from the previous year’s final that Kilkenny would employ any means necessary to stop him from doing that. Therefore, he met with coach Tommy Dunne and senior players John O’Brien and Eoin Kelly in the Horse & Jockey hotel 12 days before the semi-final to formulate a plan.
“We decided as a group that if they were going to focus on stopping me from hurling, we would fight fire with fire.
“Our plan was simple enough. Jackie [Tyrrell] would go looking for me as usual and Tommy Walsh would look to mark Pa [Bourke]. But I would roam across the field to Tommy’s wing. It would mean the four of us were going to be bunched together – and Pa would be given the job of dictating where we ran to – but it could free up space for our other forwards.
“The goal was simple – if I was going to be hounded out of the game, we would do likewise to Tommy.”
The former Hurler of the Year revealed that many of the Tipperary team were left out of the loop, a decision that was strongly criticised afterwards, with only Kelly, O’Brien and Noel McGrath fully aware of the plan.
An in-house challenge game 10 days before the semi-final acted as a dress rehearsal and with the ‘opposition’ confused, they got confirmation that the tactic could work. And so came match day.
All seemed relatively OK in the first half. In his book, Corbett stated that he was “flaked left right and centre” by Kilkenny but maintained that nothing was done. “It seems to me that the officials had given them the freedom of Croke Park”. Eventually, Walsh was booked and Corbett appeared to celebrate, an action that was condemned afterwards with many accusing the All-Star winner of attempting to get Walsh sent off.
“The hop and skip in the air mightn’t have looked great”, Corbett admitted, “but I was revved up. I wasn’t celebrating him getting a booking, just the fact we might be getting to them. That’s the unvarnished truth. Celebrating cards of any colour is just not me.”
At half-time, Tipperary were one point ahead and Dunne confirmed that the plan was working and to continue. A contributing factor to the rumour that there was a half-time ‘bust-up’ was the fact that Corbett was late in returning to the game. However, he vehemently denied it, explaining that he “got into a bit of a muddle” changing his gear before needing to use the toilet. “It shouldn’t have happened”, he admitted.
The second-half was an entirely different story and their sideshow was distracting from the play. “It was then I sensed a kind of resentment in the crowd, the fans were losing patience with our antics”, Corbett explained. They switched between that tactic and traditional methods but in the meantime, Kilkenny clocked up the scores and in his own words, Tipperary were “slaughtered”.
“Once Kilkenny get a run on you, that’s usually it… Croke Park then became the loneliest place in the world.”
Mercifully from a Tipperary point of view, the final whistle eventually sounded. Full-time score: 4-24 to 1-15.
“I wanted off that field as soon as I could. I headed to the dressing room with the intention of staying there as long as possible in the hope everyone else would have left the stadium before me. I was never as low.”
After brief media interviews, they headed back to Thurles and Corbett forced himself to make an appearance in his bar which he admitted wasn’t too bad. However, the next morning, “the towns and villages of Tipperary were alive with anger”.
For days, all people could talk about was Corbett’s performance and Tipperary’s tactics. Duignan called him a “disgrace” on television, a criticism which the Tipperary forward felt “set the tone” for the rest of his abuse.
“The floodgates opened. Jokes, cartoons and video clips were photoshopped to show me chasing after Tommy in various scenarios. A few of them were pretty funny, I have to say. I could whine on about just how bad it all got but thank God I’m designed in such a way I can handle it.”
Handle it he did. Despite the abuse and attention, Corbett returned to the Tipperary set-up the following year. In 2014, he returned to Croke Park and faced off against Kilkenny in an epic two-part battle which the Cats eventually won. After collecting a sixth Munster medal, the then 34-year-old called it a day in 2015 after a 14-year career.