This contest remains as relevant as it ever was

Old scores were never fully settled because off the field the players rarely met socially.

Those games decided how a player ranked as a hurler for the entire season and dictated what would be said of him in the pubs, factories, farms and even offices. The league hardly mattered. The championship was everything.

When Val Dorgan wrote those words a quarter of a century ago he was going back even further, referring to a specific time and a particular set of games, but he was also articulating the universal appeal of one of the great Irish sporting rivalries.

Cork and Tipp.

Dorgan’s focus above was on the games played by the counties between 1949 and 1954, a series of titanic Munster final clashes which each year yielded the eventual All-Ireland champions.

Times change, of course. Players now regularly meet socially, and on social networks, while office debates on the quality of GAA players are not the rarity they once were.

But Cork-Tipperary remains as keen a rivalry as ever, and as relevant a contest as ever. Dorgan was correct: the games are a crucible for reputations, an arena without equal, the ultimate test.

Why is that? At first glance, the two counties suit each other as rivals insofar as every point of comparison can be taken as a study in opposites.

A large urban centre in Cork versus a rural expanse in Tipperary, for instance. Canny forwards in red versus indomitable defenders in blue and gold. Even those colours are primary ones, unspoiled by similarity: red versus blue and gold. But scratch a little deeper and some of those polarities don’t quite stand up. Yes, for much of the Cork-Tipperary rivalry, the big three city clubs on Leeside — Glen Rovers, St Finbarr’s and Blackrock — dominated selection, but now rural clubs are the significant contributors to the Cork hurling team, and have always been well represented in red and white.

By the same token, while the quiet villages of Knocknagow have sent out hundreds of men to play for Tipperary, the county’s golden age was powered by one of the strongest club sides of all time, from the large town of Thurles.

John Doyle may embody the Tipperary soul, but Tipp have always had class up front as well: Jimmy Doyle. Eoin Kelly. Nicky English.

Cork have fielded potent attackers but they’ve been backed by immortal defenders: John Lyons. Martin O’Doherty. Diarmuid O’Sullivan.

In their long history of confrontations the two counties haven’t always operated at the same pitch, though. For long stretches Cork-Tipperary has been an uneven struggle.

Look at it through the prism of the experience of both of tomorrow’s managers.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy was born in 1954, which means when he was old enough to go to hurling games in the early Sixties, Tipperary’s golden age had not only begun, but was well established as the ruling junta.

Cork went from 1954 to 1966 without getting out of Munster, and Tipp were the side that often kept them down: in 1965, for instance, they beat Cork 4-11 to 0-5, and it took until 1969 for Cork to beat Tipp in a Munster final.

However, by the time Barry-Murphy was a minor, in 1972, Tipp’s long decline had begun, and the Corkman’s senior hurling career was unstained by a loss to Tipperary in the championship as he collected 10 Munster senior medals between 1975 and 1986.

Eamon O’Shea is four years younger than Barry-Murphy, and grew up in a Sixties ruled by blue and gold, but by the time he made the Tipperary senior hurling team, in the late Seventies, salvation was still years in the future.

In a neat mirroring of Cork’s earlier drought, Tipperary went from 1971 to 1987 without a Munster title, and even neater, it was Cork they beat to establish themselves that year in two unforgettable games, a draw and replay in Killarney.

This is probably key to the Cork-Tipperary rivalry: there is the fact that the great games overshadow the humdrum encounters so totally, spilling out anecdotes and displays and scores, casting a glow over all the games between them, but those games are often pivotal in the fortunes of the counties.

Before addressing those crucial games, though, it has to be admitted that one name looms over Cork and Tipperary and illuminates more of those anecdotes than anybody else.

Ring.

More than Kilkenny or Wexford or Galway, Tipperary defined Ring as a hurler. In 1951 he gave what is regarded as his greatest hurling performance against them, and in 1952 he gave what is regarded as his most influential performance against them — according to Tipperary, anyway — persuading the referee to allow a goal by Liam Dowling to stand. For 10 years before those games, and for 10 years after, Cork’s chances centred on Ring.

When John Doyle was invited to muse on the Corkman late in life, he offered a nuanced view. Doyle said he had won eight All-Irelands with Tipperary, but that Ring had won eight All-Irelands for Cork.

For his part, Ring’s one-liners often had a sharp edge but Tipperary sparked him to immortal putdowns (“We’ll have to shoot you,” said Mickey Byrne to him once; “You’ve tried everything else,” was Ring’s answer).

As noted in these pages earlier this week, though, Ring paid Tipperary the ultimate compliment when he said they were the only county you could play “all out” against. When he died in 1979, his old adversary from 30 years before, Tommy Doyle, was eloquent.

“The whole of Tipperary stopped when Christy Ring died,” said Doyle. “Everybody said, ‘did you hear about Christy?’, and we thought it might be a mistake.”

Doyle is important because he figured in one of those pivotal games, shackling Ring in 1949, slipping Cork to begin a three-in-a-row; Cork did the same in 1954 to annex their own three consecutive titles.

Cork’s huge effort in 1960 against Tipperary just fell short, and the Premier ruled the decade until Cork’s victory in 1969.

Tipperary came close to the breakthrough in 1984 but Cork caught them at the death and kicked on for two All-Irelands, while Tipperary’s revival in 1987 saw them take charge for the next few years.

In 2004 the Rebels edged Tipperary out in the qualifiers and won the next two All-Irelands; Tipperary pipped Cork in 2007 and began their ascendancy, leading to the 2010 All-Ireland.

Tomorrow?

A continuation of the old rivalry. A fork in the road for two teams. Same as it ever was.



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