JOHN COLEMAN: This greatest of rivalries owes us something

At the moment, the GAA is at a crossroads in its evolution as it faces down Darwin’s old adage about survival of the fittest, writes John Coleman. 
JOHN COLEMAN: This greatest of rivalries owes us something

With the introduction of the ‘Super 8’ structure in football, along with the planned revamp of the hurling championship, Croke Park seems to be edging towards the idea of elite inter-county activity being the be all and end all of the association.

The new force of the CPA, however, seems to be more faithful to Darwin, as they seek a structure that ‘fits all’ for the club game to survive in harmony with the inter-county calendar. Despite this crisis of identity, one thing will remain constant: Rivalries. No matter what happens, the future success of the GAA will be dependent on them.

Rivalries evoke the most primal part of our being — that grudging, innate dislike of those charlatans next door, or that shower over the road, or those expletives from across the city. We try and convince ourselves we don’t like them because they’re different, but really it’s because they’re the same. And there is no greater rivalry than Cork and Tipp.

It has a history and lore that stands comfortably among all of the best sporting struggles: The Red Sox and the Yankees; Ali and Frazier; Davy against the world. The echoes of the golden era that was the 1940s to the ’60’s still sing loudly today. Ring. Doyle. Hell’s Kitchen. Icons.

Men of a more recent vintage, those who have swapped flagon bottles of cider in Liberty Square for long, self-flagellating cycles on a Sunday morning, will point to the ’80s as the pinnacle of the rivalry.

Many a Cork forty-something is still lost in 1984. No, not George Orwell’s dystopian epic about a despotic, totalitarian regime, but the greatest Munster final of them all. Tony O’Sullivan, John Sheedy, roly-poly Seánie Leary. Meanwhile, their doppelgangers to the north lie in bed reminiscing how they charged the field in Killarney in 1987 as their famine was ended by their savage hunger.

Then there are the younger Corkonians, who still get a shiver when they think of Killarney in 2004. The traffic. The shemozzle. The McCarthy goals. It laid to rest ’87, made back-to-back All-Ireland successes possible and put Tipp back in their box. For a while.

But, much like the GAA as a whole, this rivalry is at a crossroads. Whisper it, but it hasn’t delivered for a while. The last decent game between the counties was in 2012 when Tipp finally edged a Cork team with JBM involved by 1-22 to 0-24.

But even then, the knowledgeable sages dismissed the game as too open, too pure. It wouldn’t do in this Cody-inspired era of ferocious physicality. They were right, it wouldn’t. It entertained rather than enthralled. And 2014 just disappointed.

The truth is that Cork and Tipp haven’t met with both at anything approaching their peak for a long time. They may have met in championship every year from 2004 to 2012 but disputes, rebuilding projects, and severe cases of inertia mean that most of these clashes don’t quite make it into the pantheon.

It hasn’t even given us a bit of devilment for a while. Dónal Óg Cusack’s admission to giving Eoin Kelly a dud sliotar in 2005 is as controversial as it’s got over the past 20 years. It’s hard to see that old flame of scorn being reignited before Sunday too.

Michael Ryan isn’t about to channel his inner Babs any time soon, just as Kieran Kingston won’t be accusing Tipp of a return to ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, a la Justin McCarthy.

1991 was the last time the rivalry really peaked. The All-Ireland champions of 1989 facing down the All-Ireland champions of 1990. An epic draw shrouded in controversy in Páirc Uí Chaoimh followed by an equally epic replay in Thurles.

The braying of donkeys every time Babs stuck his head out of the dugout. Needle that bordered on nastiness both on and off the field. And goals, loads of goals. It had everything, bar the correct result, and it was brilliant.

These days, there’s nearly too much respect between the counties. Cork’s current stagnation has helped take the sting out of it too.

Nevertheless, the nature of rivalries also means they can surprise us, 2007 being a case in point for Tipperary people. Only 12,000 souls turned up for this group–stage qualifier and nothing much was expected.

Among the crowd was a man I briefly worked with who, in the aftermath, enjoyed regaling how it took him three days to get home after the game, such was the unbridled joy of Tipp’s first win over Cork since 1991. Never mind that Wexford clipped their wings afterwards; sometimes it’s all right to take a win in pure isolation. 2010 certainly was in Cork.

Cork and Tipperary owe us something, be it a proper classic, or a proper shock, or something we haven’t seen before. The ingredients may not be there for this Sunday, but stranger things have happened and this is a rivalry that will endure because it always has the ability to explode.

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