FIVE minutes into the second half of the 2016 Cork-Tipperary Munster quarter-final, the heavens opened in Thurles.
For many Cork supporters on the Town End terrace, it gave them the excuse they were probably looking for. A small band of fans continued to sing and hammer bodhrans under the scoreboard but streams of Cork supporters began filing out of the ground. They had seen enough. They couldn’t take any more.
On a grey afternoon resembling a monsoon, Cork were washed away in the deluge. Cork set up with a sweeper but Tipperary still did what they liked. Tipp didn’t even have to stretch themselves to win by nine points.
It was the counties' first championship meeting since 2012 but the hype was muted, the longing for the old and storied nostalgia of Cork and Tipperary matches having long receded. Traditionally, the fixture had always been steeped in history and mythology but that time looked to have passed in 2016.
When the sides next met the following year, Tipp were All-Ireland champions and raging favourites. Cork started five championship rookies. Nobody gave them a chance but Cork turned Tipp over in an epic contest It was breathless stuff, the best match in the province since the drawn Cork-Waterford Munster final in 2010. There was action at every turn before Cork eventually won by 2-27 to 1-26.
It was Cork’s biggest score against Tipperary in the championship. The 53 points (white flags) shared between the teams was the greatest number ever scored in a championship match.
The sides played out an enthralling draw in 2018 before Tipp reasserted their authority in the 2019 round robin. Tipp also beat Cork a year later in the winter championship.
The last two meetings saw another cooling-off in the relationship, which had happened between 2007-2010, especially in the quality. Tipp were dominant in that 2019 fixture. They only led by one point at half-time but they always looked capable of slicing Cork open and were more than full value for a seven-point win.
The 2020 meeting wasn’t any litmus test of the relationship because it was played in a monsoon in November. Cork looked in a great position at half-time having played against a gale but the wind and rain died in the second half and Tipp took control to win by four points in a deserted Gaelic Grounds.
That was a qualifier but for most of the last two decades, Cork-Tipperary matches were not the ultimate life-force of the Munster championship, like they once were, or were traditionally often deemed to be.
There were other shows in town but, prior to last Sunday, tomorrow looked set to represent a nadir in the relationship; everyone expected Cork and Tipp to be playing out a dead rubber and to see who would avoid the wooden spoon in the group.
Cork’s win against Waterford though, has changed everything. A win now will put Cork through but Tipp also have something to play for, even if they need to win by seven points and hope Clare can beat Waterford by eight points. That might seem unlikely but it’s possible.
In any case, Tipp are playing for much more than just progression to the preliminary quarter-final. Their defeat to Limerick two weeks ago confirmed their worst losing streak in history with five successive championship losses. Tipp may not have won a championship game between 1973 and 1983, but they still drew some matches during that period to ensure they never endured more than four defeats in a row. So six successive defeats in unthinkable.
After Tipp lost to Limerick, Colm’s Bonnar’s determination was striking in his post-match interview. Even though it looked like Tipp’s season was over, Bonnar wasn’t thinking that way.
“Against Cork,” he said, “we will be doing absolutely everything we can to get a win in this championship.”
That’s the force of will that Cork will now meet and they better be ready for it.
Cork’s work-rate will need to be even higher again but at least Cork’s team structure looks far better than it did at the outset of the championship. The full-back line has been excellent, particularly Seán O’Donoghue but Niall O’Leary and Rob Downey have also been two of Cork’s best players.
Last August against Limerick was a difficult day for Downey but he has shown admirable resilience ever since, especially after being dropped for the Limerick game in May. Yet, aside from the All-Ireland final, Downey has been excellent at full-back since the Clare game last year when he was probably Cork’s best player on the day.
Ciarán Joyce has had a chance to settle in at centre-back and is growing every day. Mark Coleman looks more at ease at wing-back, while Luke Meade’s return to form as a midfielder was a huge boost against Waterford. Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane have shown massive leadership in the half-forward while Tim O’Mahony and Alan Connolly have given Cork a whole new focal point up front.
Cork know what they have to do now, but so do Tipp, which makes this game a real throwback. Incredibly, this is the first knockout Munster championship match between Cork and Tipp since 1992. And even a win for Tipp might still mean their season is over.
Thirty years on and everything has changed. Yet with so much at stake, the Cork-Tipp rivalry should be rocking again like the old days.