Cleary fears this final could run for years

From The Irish Times

 SEÁN MORAN GAA Correspondent

THE MATERIALISING of the first Kilkenny-Tipperary All-Ireland final in 18 years after the latter’s destruction of Limerick on Sunday revives one of hurling’s major rivalries at the top level, but may also be a sign of things to come.

That’s the view of Michael Cleary, the respected coach who scored the decisive goal when Tipperary won the most recent MacCarthy Cup decider between the counties. Although he is satisfied with the development work being done in the county, he sees competition restricted in the years to come, with the under-age domination of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway casting a shadow on the rest of the contenders in what is already a restricted field.

“It’s going well here even if the under-21’s defeat is a bit of a setback, but I’m more worried about the overall state of hurling, apart from Galway, Kilkenny and Tipperary and to a certain extent, Dublin and Waterford. Most other counties, Cork included, are in trouble with their hurling.

“Limerick aren’t much stronger than they showed on Sunday. I’ve seen them three times this year and am fairly convinced that Ballyhale or Portumna (winners of the past four club finals) would beat them – and Laois, Offaly, Wexford and Clare. I hate to say it, but hurling is in serious trouble.

“I think you could see Tipp and Kilkenny share the next 10 All-Irelands, with maybe Galway getting in there. I just can’t see winners coming from anywhere else.”

Kilkenny’s domination of this decade has included two wins over their Tipperary neighbours in the 2002 and 2003 semi-finals, the latter by a rampant 12 points. But the record between the teams in finals has been significantly different, with Tipperary sustaining only one defeat since the 1920s.

The sequence has to be qualified by the comparative rarity of the counties’ meeting. In the 87 seasons since the 1922 championship there have been just seven encounters, with Kilkenny winning 1967, but going down in 1937, ’45, ’50, ’64, ’71 and ’91.

Forty years ago relations between the two were poisonous after a controversial league final and lengthy suspensions handed out in its aftermath. Lack of practice cooled the rivalry in the decades that followed.

In the most recent encounter, a young Kilkenny side on the way to back-to-back titles in 1992-93 went down by four points to Michael Keating’s side, who were winning a second All-Ireland in three years.

The only goal in the 1-16 to 0-15 win was scored by Cleary, who recalls that the rivalry back then was virtually as fresh as it is now.

“We didn’t play Kilkenny much. Tipp won the Munster final for the first time in 16 years and it looked like it might be a Tipp-Kilkenny All-Ireland final, but it didn’t happen. In 1989, we played in the last day of the league season.

“Tipp had won all of their games and Kilkenny needed to win and they did by something like 2-14 to 0-3 – it was annihilation – in Nowlan Park.

“The next time we met them was in Thurles in 1991, again in a crunch match at the end of the league, and they hammered us again by eight or nine points. These were league matches, but they were important; there was something riding on them.

“Then we ended up playing them in the All-Ireland final. Whether it was tradition or whatever name you want to put on it, I remember being very conscious that Tipp had this great record against Kilkenny in finals and being very confident – not in the sense that this was going to be handy or anything, but just that we would normally beat them in finals.

“It wasn’t something you grew up with, because I grew up in an era when Tipp won nothing, but that history was there. So here we were heading into a final fairly confident, despite the only two meetings we’d had as a team were two hammerings.”

The different stages of the development cycle were probably as relevant as the league history in 1991, and next month that situation will be repeated in reverse with Tipperary fulfilling the role of the up-and-coming team against the champions, seeking to emulate the All-Ireland record of four-in-a-row set by Cork in the 1940s.

Cleary says that it would have been better for Tipperary had they not lost narrowly in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final to Waterford – despite the latter’s humiliating defeat by Kilkenny.

“It would have benefited Tipperary to have got the experience of a final. All-Ireland final day has become massive. The media hype has become huge. Here you are three weeks before the final talking about it already, and you see it already being described as a dream final.

“The hype will be massive in the hurling world, and generally when that happens you don’t always get the final you hope for. There’s no guarantee, but it’s highly unlikely that it will be one-sided.”

Whether Tipp end up chalking it down to experience or causing a major upset remains to be seen.

“Kilkenny will still start as the hottest of favourites to equal the 65-year old record, but Tipperary’s big semi-final win has ensured that the match is being looked forward to as the first competitive final in three years.

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