The multitudes from both counties gathered in Semple Stadium yesterday, over 35,000 of them, shorts and short-sleeve tops the couture-du-jour, no-one knowing what was in store.
Would Tipperary again put up the kind of barnstorming display to which they treated the home fans just four weeks ago, on this same ground, in the extra-time league final loss to Kilkenny? Have they really added that bit of extra steel so necessary at this level of competition, or was that just a one-off?
These were the questions in the minds of the thousands of Tipperary supporters, and they were nervous questions.
Among the Cork faithful the questions were even more nervous: having had less than seven weeks in which to prepare his team, would Denis Walsh’s first championship 15 be up to the task ahead of them? Would Eoin Cadogan be able to replace Diarmuid O’Sullivan in the critical full-back position?
Would the likes of John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Seán Óg O hAilpín, Tom Kenny, the O’Connor twins Ben and Jerry, the McCarthys Tim and Niall, so often the linchpin around which Cork had built in the middle area, be able to deliver one more time, or would time in fact catch up with them, would they fall victim to the power and pace of a more youthful Tipperary?
Would Aisake O hAilpín do what his brother Setanta did in that one glorious season of 2003, and set Thurles alight on the edge of the square? Would it be close, or would it be a blow-out, and signal the end of the road for this Cork team? So much uncertainty, an awful lot more than would usually be associated with two top teams at this stage of the season.
In the event, everyone got their answers, and anyone who left the stadium unhappy... well, there’s just no pleasing some folk.
From the throw-in it was evident that whatever else was going to happen, this wasn’t going to be a mismatch. Blow for blow they went for the first 21 minutes, at the end of which it was tied at 0-5 apiece, Tipp with a brace each from Eoin Kelly (looked sharp, despite his long injury layoff) and Seamus Callanan, teenager Noel McGrath with their fifth, while Ben O’Connor had all but one of the Cork scores, Niall McCarthy chipping in with a point.
In the second quarter, however, Tipp did get on top, and with their forwards leading the Cork defence a merry dance, they streaked into a six-point lead as the half went into injury time. Two late Ben O’Connor pointed frees, however, allowed Cork a lifeline, and they headed for the dressing-room just four behind, 0-13 to 0-9.
Very noticeable in that first half was the ease with which Tipp were winning their own puck-outs, Lar Corbett with two tremendous catches of massive Brendan Cummins’ deliveries, both ending as points, John O’Brien also doing well. Cork, meanwhile, were having major problems down the left, yet persisted in sending ball after ball down that channel.
There was much head-shaking among the Rebel following when Cork emerged for the second half with the same half forward line intact, even more when, less than a minute after the restart, Seamus Callanan had the ball in the Cork net, courtesy first of a defensive slip, then a deflected shot that deceived Cusack (who, those errant puck-outs apart in that first half, had a magnificent 70 minutes) in the Cork goal.
This should have been the signal for Tipperary to drive on, hammer home the advantage they were obviously enjoying; instead it was Cork, now with wind at their backs, who stepped it up a level, and for the next half an hour it was the visitors very much on top.
Changes were made, positional and personnel, and with the O’Connor twins combining superbly, John Gardiner magnificent in a new midfield role, substitute Pa Cronin impressing on the 40, Eoin Cadogan outstanding at full-back, they took the fight to Tipperary. Point by point they whittled down the lead, Ben O’Connor still doing most of the scoring, until, in the 57th minute, they had it back to just a single point, 1-15 to 0-17.
Crucially, however, they could never get their noses in front, and crucially also, this was primarily because they could not breach the Tipperary rearguard. Oh, they came close, and on three occasions; 40th minute, corner-forward Pat Horgan went for position, tried to place the ball past Brendan Cummins in the Tipperary goals, shot just outside the post; a minute later, Timmy McCarthy actually had the ball in the net but the whistle had already sounded, called back for a Cork penalty (something similar had happened to Tipp’s Eoin Kelly in the first half, so that cancelled that one out!) which was then saved by the aforementioned Mr Cummins; 59th minute, Aisake O hAilpín finally got inside Paul Curran but over-hit the handpass to the in-rushing Horgan, went too close to – yes, Brendan Cummins, who saved, was fouled, danger averted. During this period of dominance also, the Cork shooting was off; nine wides they notched in the second half to just one for Tipperary – inefficiency on the one hand, efficiency on the other, and ultimately it made a difference.
Ultimately also, however, it all came down to the last 15 minutes. Tipp had had their period of dominance in the latter part of the first half, Cork had been on top for much of the second half, and each had missed opportunities. With quarter of an hour remaining, however, just that single point between them, it was still there for either side, and credit to Tipp, they were the ones who came through.
Some brave calls were made on the sideline, guys like Noel McGrath – who had scored three fine points on his senior championship debut – and team captain Conor O’Mahony taken off, but with the game on the line their replacements all stepped up to the mark. Benny Dunne especially, two fine points from play, but even as Cork continued to misfire in those closing minutes, four bad wides, it was Tipperary keeping the heads cool, doing the business.
Worthy winners, but they got one hell of a test, one which is sure to benefit both sides. Tipp now have just three weeks to prepare for their next challenge, against Clare in the Munster semi-final; Denis Walsh and Cork have two weeks extra, time that will surely be profitably spent.
Scorers for Tipperary: S Callanan 1-3; E Kelly 0-5 (4f); N McGrath, L Corbett 0-3 each; B Dunne, S McGrath (1s/l) 0-2 each; J O’Brien 0-1.
Scorers for Cork: B O’Connor 0-11 (8f); J Gardiner 0-3 (1f, 1 ‘65’); P Cronin 0-2; A O hAilpín, N McCarthy, T Kenny, 0-1 each.
Subs for Tipperary: P Kerwick for Webster, 51; B Maher for O’Mahony, 54; D Gleeson for Cummins, 61; G Ryan for N McGrath, 63; B Dunne fro Woodlock, 65; P Kelly for Callanan, 67.
Subs for Cork: S Murphy for O’Neill, 18; P Cronin for N McCarthy, 44; C Naughton for T McCarthy, 49; P O’Sullivan for K Murphy, 58; F O’Leary for Horgan, 63.
Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).