NATIONAL league games that serve as championship dress rehearsals can be hard to gauge.
There is a sense that it’s best to hold something back, so as to be able to sucker your opponent when the real thing comes. And then, there are times when the league clash proves to be an accurate barometer.
In the wake of Cork’s 0-33 to 2-19 loss to Limerick at the LIT Gaelic Grounds last Saturday, the Munster SHC semi-final meeting between the counties in Thurles on July 3 will to an extent be framed in terms of the league game. There is of course no real pattern as to how league games influence championship meetings between the same sides – there are too many other factors at play – and some high-profile examples involving Cork have worked out both well and badly.
Just two years ago, Tipperary came to Páirc Uí Rinn for the final round of the regular section of the Allianz HL in March – rearranged after having to be postponed a week previously – with both sides needing something from the match to reach the knockout stages. However, adding to the intrigue was the fact that the counties were slated to meet in the first Munster SHC game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh two months down the line.
Unfortunately for Cork, a 1-29 to 1-16 defeat meant they finished in the bottom two – three sides were on four points, but Tipp made it to the quarter-finals while the Rebels and Kilkenny had to meet in a relegation play-off, albeit one which was ultimately meaningless as the restructuring of the league for 2020 meant no relegation.
Any hopes that the 13-point loss for Cork could be put in the ‘only the league’ box were dispelled when Tipp made it a Leeside double, winning by 2-28 to 1-24 in the championship. They would go on to win the All-Ireland, while Cork’s year ended at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.
In 2010, Denis Walsh’s Cork had a one-point league win over Tipp in the league in April, with a championship clash to come. One national newspaper said that “Tipperary suffered only a slight nick which had closed by the time they left Páirc Uí Chaoimh yesterday evening”.
As the reigning Munster champions, beaten by Kilkenny in the previous year’s All-Ireland, they still went into the Munster quarter-final at the end of May as strong favourites but they were blitzed by Cork, with two goals from Patrick Horgan and one from Aisake Ó hAilpín securing a 3-15 to 0-14 victory. Despite the win, Cork couldn’t go on to claim a Munster title, losing to Waterford after a replay, while Tipp came through the back door to win the All-Ireland.
Even 23 years on, the 1998 episode with Clare remains memorable. Cork had lost to the Banner in the championships of 1995 and 1997, with Ger Loughnane’s side winning the All-Ireland each time. In that regard, a 2-15 to 0-10 league semi-final victory was reason to be happy.
Joe Deane scored nine points with Alan Browne and Seánie McGrath getting the goals. Of the 16 players who saw game-time that day, 12 would play some part in September of the following year as the nine-year wait for the Liam MacCarthy Cup was ended. Things were definitely moving in the right direction.
Soon enough, though, the whispers emerged about the lack of importance Clare had placed on the match. “They trained on the evening before the match,” soon morphed into, “They trained on the morning of the match,” and when they won by 0-21 to 0-13 in the Munster semi-final in Thurles, the legend grew further legs.
Classic Loughnane mind-games, we were told, but Anthony Daly’s excellent autobiography relates a different tale, that of the Clare panel hiring a minibus for the day after the league game, the May bank holiday Monday, and going on a West Clare pub-crawl with the proviso being that nobody would drink until the championship clash with Cork or Limerick.
“Late in the evening, we got everyone around a table and I took to the floor. ‘Lads, I like a drink as much as anyone, but we make a vow here and now that not a drop of alcohol passes our lips until we beat those boys again in seven weeks. They s**t down on top of us yesterday but we’ll show them who the bosses are in June.’
Far from psychological warfare, they were motivated into a response, and it’s clear to see that they now respected Cork enough to have put in an extra effort to beat them. Cork’s star was clearly rising among those in the know and that would be proved in the league final against Waterford on May 17 and then with a Munster championship win over Limerick a fortnight later.
It was a first championship win over anybody except Kerry since 1992 and, while they would fall to Clare, it was the first step towards the following year’s All-Ireland.