IT HAS gone down as one of the GAA’s lowest points, particularly in Munster hurling.
On August 31st 1999, having months earlier lost a torrid two-game saga to Clare in the Munster senior championship, Tipperary went to Ennis to take on the home side in the Munster U-21 championship.
Cusack Park was packed but where normally this would be just another fantastic, colourful occasion in hurling’s most competitive province, on this night there was an ugly, snarling atmosphere in those packed stands and terraces. The hurling was magnificent with Tipperary triumphing on a 1-18 to 1-15 scoreline.
But when it was over the then Clare U21 manager Davy Fitzgerald was provoked into retaliation when shamefully taunted by some on the Tipperary bench, sparking a mass brawl. It was a turning point in what was an increasingly rancorous rivalry between these two neighbouring counties. The message got through — this was all going too far.
One of those who turned that game that evening was a precocious 17-year-old. With Tipp trailing by 1-7 to 0-8 at half-time, Eoin Kelly came on as a substitute and went on to score three superb points from play.
With Tipp again facing Clare in another Munster final this Sunday, in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, Eoin recalls that evening, that rivalry.
"My memory of it is that there were young fellas up against the wire, there was no space there and it was totally crowded. There was a high intensity to the game that night. Declan Browne, being a poacher, got in for a goal. He had the capability to do that throughout his career.
"I was in the dug-out that night, you were watching your team and as a forward, looking at someone that maybe wasn’t going that well, hoping to get in there yourself. I think you are more focused on the game than being worried about the other side."
A year later, still a minor, Eoin made his senior championship debut when coming on as a sub against Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final. In 2001 he played his first match against Clare on the big stage and though the poison was gone from the relationship, the intensity remained. Early in the game, in possession of the ball, Eoin was being shouldered from pillar to post between Clare players. He survived and bounced back up off the ground to lay off a fine pass, played a leading part as Tipp again came out on top. Now, everything is back to normal. The rivalry is there, as it always was, but the spite that marked that period is gone.
Good riddance, says Eoin.
"It probably went when the championship was restructured and you had a second chance. It was straight knockout before, your summer was over if you lost. In 2002 the championship was restructured, a back door in every round whereas previously you were either in or out."
And there’s another reason – familiarity, real familiarity.
"With third level education now a lot of the players went to college together. Not only with Tipp and Clare but all over Munster and in Galway and Kilkenny. The likes of Brian O’Connell, the Clare captain, Barry Nugent, Conor Plunkett. I played with all those guys, with LIT; Shane McGrath (Tipp midfielder) would have been the same, Conor O’Mahony also. If you look at the colleges there was probably seven or eight of us that played together on the one team."
And they stay in contact?
"Of course you would yeah, sure you always stay in contact with your college friends. But all that goes out the door when the ball is thrown in. I suppose there will be handshakes and that after the game but for the 70 minutes you will be just dying for your team.
"We won’t care how we win, whether it’s a classic game or a poor game. We just want the result. The Munster title is something that has deserted both teams over the last six or seven years. Being in Munster you always want to win the Munster Championship as it’s a prestigious competition. This final brings a bit of freshness even for the likes of ye guys.
"I think that when Cork and Waterford were beaten this year, the three teams left felt they had a great chance, and now there are two teams in the final gunning for the one bit of silverware. Each of us will look at it as a great chance. It is refreshing. There’s going to be ferocious intensity because we want to get over the line."