As far back as I can remember, myself and my family’s life has been dictated by our relationship with Tipperary.
Growing up as we did, just half a mile away from the Darkside, there was no escaping them in good times and bad. While we were always very vocal about our Kilkenny roots, by some strange quirk of the Irish mailing system that was never explained to us, our postal address blithely states “Mullinahone, Thurles, Co. Tipperary”. This was a source of endless confusion for anyone who ever tried to send something to us. “Oh, so you’re from Tipperary?” they’d ask. “Well actually, no….”. It didn’t matter. As another famous Tipp man Ronald Reagan sagely advised: “If you are explaining, you are losing.”
Soccer followers have often admired the extent to which GAA fans can coexist peacefully in stadia and, to a large extent, it’s true. Violence between supporters is not a common GAA theme. It’s something to be proud of, but to suggest that the Tipp-Kilkenny rivalry is a “friendly” one would be met with short shrift by anyone around Urlingford and Gortnahoe. That’s not to say there isn’t a grudging level of respect for each others’ achievements, but there’s also a general air of antipathy among supporters. Maybe we can inhabit the same lives together for the majority of the year, but for at least one or two days per annum, it’s warfare.
We used to say around our area that Tipperary were “a jeery aul crowd”. Well, you only jeer in life when you have something worth jeering about and for years they did. Some younger readers may be shocked to realise that there was a 45-year period from 1922 where Kilkenny didn’t beat Tipperary in the Championship. Now granted, they may have only met five times during that time, but there was enough resentment built up that the 1967 All-Ireland victory against them felt like a glorious release, albeit one marred by star corner-forward Tom Walsh’s tragic injury.
The presumed natural order was restored with Tipp’s victories in 1971 and 1991. What made both defeats more galling is how close Kilkenny were to victory both times. In the former, the legendary Ollie Walsh had probably his worst ever performance for the county, as Kilkenny lost out by three points in a 10-goal thriller. Twenty years later his son Michael had the misfortune to be beaten by a deflected Michael Cleary free for the only goal in another avoidable narrow defeat. All of this fed into the mindset that Kilkenny just weren’t meant to beat Tipperary in All-Ireland finals. It seeped so much into our consciousness my father once plaintively decried we had to be “ten points better” than Tipp in order to beat them.
If you had ever asked as to why it was the case that Tipperary, despite their noted deficiencies throughout the 70s and 80s, were still able to rise to conquer us, our sometimes mooted, but rarely discussed soft underbelly may have been referred to. “Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men” was a line that was trotted out constantly by smug Premier folk. It was also suggested by us, more darkly, that maybe some of those Tipperary sides didn’t play 100% by fair means. When you have the likes of Mickey “The Rattler” Byrne in your defence, it’s true that you’re not going to get anything easy. I mean, let’s face it, they didn’t get the nickname “Hell’s Kitchen” for their culinary skills.
Among the many things that Brian Cody has changed about Kilkenny Hurling, and hurling in general, the perception that the county was in anyway “soft” has been one of the foremost. Certainly the 2001 semi-final defeat against Galway paved a way for a Damascene-like conversion for the man. From then on, while small, outrageously talented hurlers like Richie Hogan have been produced, there’s never been anyone who’s stepped out in the Black and Amber that you’d describe as “windy”.
If Kilkenny are now one of the most iron willed teams ever to play hurling, then it just reflects their manager’s approach. Anyone who has ever squared up to the intimidating figure in a baseball cap on the sideline will know that. So maybe Tipp went “over the edge” in winning a few of All-Irelands in the past, but are you saying Kilkenny didn’t to win some of theirs in recent years? I don’t think Seamus Callanan, after Jackie Tyrrell’s thunderous shoulder nearly put him out of commission in 2009, would disagree.
In truth, all of the late night bar talk about what’s tough or dirty is irrelevant. A team does whatever it takes to get over the line, and it’s up to the referee to decide whether it’s legal or not. You don’t win senior All-Irelands with a team completely composed of Noel McGraths, or “Rattler” Byrnes, but rather a collection of both. But if Kilkenny had to be “ten points better” to win in the past, then how good do Tipp have to be to beat Kilkenny now?
In the Cody era, Tipperary have faced Kilkenny nine times in the Championship and four times in League finals. They’ve won just once. Of the 11 defeats they’ve suffered, six have been by a score or less. Don’t tell me that doesn’t have a psychological effect. The one time Tipperary have beaten Kilkenny in the Championship in 2010, they did so comfortably. They’ve never managed to defeat their arch nemesis in a close game.
Kilkenny should have beaten Tipperary in 1971 and 1991. That’s undeniable. But then Tipp could equally point to 2009 and the drawn game of 2014 as ones that they let slip. There’s one thing having your foot on someone’s throat; there’s another stamping down on it ’til there’s no life left. If Tipperary are six or seven points up with 10 minutes to go on Sunday, you’d fancy them to win. But if it’s anything closer…
Kilkenny’s recent history is one massive advantage in their favour come the weekend. And yet, looking at this game, you can construct a more than convincing argument as to why Tipp will win it. Certainly their early season form was more impressive than Kilkenny’s, and while it wasn’t a smooth ride against Galway, in another way it was exactly the kind of victory they needed. An easy win would have led to accusations that they hadn’t been tested. But after Galway, their first close victory in god knows how long, they know they can win another way.
Looking at the match ups, the Tipp side again looks superior. Certainly the forward line, consisting such sharp shooters as Seamus Callanan and John McGrath, with John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer and Jason Forde to come off the bench, looks more than a match for what Kilkenny have. Despite their youth, their full back line is as strong as anything they’ve produced in recent years, and they still have the experience of Brendan and Padraic Maher to call on further afield. They also have a clean bill of health, whereas Michael Fennelly’s Achilles injury is a massive blow for Kilkenny.
Ever since 2010 Tipperary have been threatening to reinstall themselves as the premier force in hurling. We know that they’re great hurlers, now it’s time to prove themselves as men. But these games are not just won on the field, but in the mind. How many points is Brian Cody worth to Kilkenny? And how much does Michael Ryan have to do, both on the sideline and in the dressing room, to match him?
By law of averages, Tipp are due a win. On form this year, they look the better. But would you back against Kilkenny? Ha ha, yeah… good luck with that.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena