The year 1997 marked a major turning-point in the GAA, the introduction of the back door in the All-Ireland senior hurling championship.
It was limited to the beaten provincial finalists and in Munster, Tipperary took advantage, managed to reach that year’s All-Ireland final where they again lost to Clare.
Since then the system has been expanded, every loser in both Munster and Leinster now getting a second chance. Without question however, the biggest game yet in the 17 years of the back door is this Saturday’s meeting of reigning All-Ireland champions Kilkenny and Tipperary, the champions of 2010.
Back in ’97 the captain of the Tipperary side that created its own bit of history (the first team to be beaten twice in the same championship season) was midfielder Conor Gleeson. Painful as that introduction was, Conor is a fan of the system. “It was introduced to give teams more games, give them a second chance. It’s taken a long time to come good but this year’s championship is really benefiting from it. It’s all wide open now, one of the most open championships we’ve had in years.”
There are those who argue that it’s really for the benefit of the big teams – Conor disagrees. “You have to look at the positives of the system. Nearly every year now you’re getting six or seven of the best teams in the country in the last eight and that’s really what you want; in that sense it’s a fair system. Okay, in another year those two big guns (Tipperary and Kilkenny) would be gone but everyone gets to have that second chance, that’s only fair. Overall I think it’s a good system.”
The thing is, it’s still a straight knockout competition, only now the knockout rounds start a little later. “Yes, back then knockout was knockout right from the first round. It made for more excitement from the beginning and nowadays that edge is missing early in the season, everyone knows that second chance is there. There’s no other chance after Saturday night though for either Kilkenny or Tipperary, it’s do-or-die now, back to straight knockout and whoever loses is gone. Kilkenny have been beaten and any other year that would be a good thing for all the other counties but now they’re still there and still very much a threat. This game is unusual though in that normally they’d avoid the likes of Tipp this early and they’d be back at the quarter-final stage very quickly; now they’re under real pressure. It’s just amazing to think that one of the two early favourites for the All-Ireland will be gone after Saturday night, and still only early July.”
It has captured the imagination of the public too, a sell-out in Nowlan Park. Both Tipperary (2010) and Kilkenny (2012) have benefited from the back-door system in earlier years, going on to win the All-Ireland after losing in their own province.
It’s become widely accepted now anyway, Offaly the first team to do so, beating Kilkenny in ’98 after losing to them in the Leinster final, Cork the first Munster team to capitalise, 2004, having lost the Munster final to Waterford.
The big question for Conor though, who will be attending in a professional capacity as analyst with Tipp FM – who’s going to win? “Kilkenny are hurting after last week. They were beaten fair and square by Dublin, beaten on hunger, beaten on hurling, beaten to the ball and on the ball and I’m sure Brian Cody has been in their ears since last Saturday — no better man to have in the dressing-room or on the training pitch. Kilkenny will be ready. Tipperary need to step up from the performance against Limerick, bring the Dublin-type intensity to Nowlan Park.
“The backs were reasonably good that day but our forwards didn’t go well, too many players of the same style. I can see Eoin Kelly and Lar Corbett back in the fray again, experienced players. If it was a neutral venue you’d say Tipperary have a great chance but it’s in Nowlan Park, that changes the balance again. Look, it’s a tough ask for Kilkenny to go out without Henry Shefflin, Michael Fennelly and Paul Murphy, three of their best players last year, but I have no doubt whatsoever, they’re going to rise to the occasion. Tipperary can do it but we’re going to have to play to our full potential.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved