Part 2 of our All-Ireland club finals preview sees us switching focus to the small ball and the mouth-watering clash of Ballyea and Cuala.
Both teams have a lot in common. They both play an open, quick and skillful brand of hurling that gives spectators all the best the game has to offer. They are both free-scoring teams. They’ve both made history this year. They both are building their success on over a decade of hard work at underage level. They both took ten games to get this far. And they’re both convinced that they will be taking the Tommy Moore Cup home from Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day.
All in all, there’s little between these sides. One thing everyone is predicting is that we’re in for a classic of a club final.
Dalkey-based Cuala, cheered on by their loud and colourful ‘Cuala Ultras’ are the first ever Dublin team to contest the All-Ireland hurling club final. No mean feat! Since the competition’s inception in 1971, Leinster has only ever been represented by a team from the capital once. That was 1979 champions Crumlin.
Having lost out to Oulart the Ballagh in the Leinster decider last year, Cuala began this season with one goal in mind; taking that step further and getting to the All-Ireland final. They have now achieved that goal and have done it in some style.
Only Ballyboden and Kilmacud Crokes have matched what Cuala have had to offer this year.
Crokes drew to their local rivals in the group stages of the Dublin championship before a Colm Cronin goal was all that separated the sides when they again locked horns in the Dublin final. Meanwhile, Ballyboden took them to extra-time in the county quarter-final.
Since winning the Dublin title, 11 goals in four games, seven from the impressive Con O’Callaghan, has put the hurling world on notice as to their intent. David Treacy has also been on fire for Cuala racking up 30 points since they took the county title.
If Ballyea are to prevail, they’ll need to keep a leash on those two in particular. Cuala received a boost in the return from injury of Paul Schutte. Oisín Gough and Co. have marshalled the defence well all year. One can see why confidence is high in South County Dublin.
Ballyea have been a team on the way to their first county title win for some years now. Ever since the country stood up and took note of the skill and flare of Tony Kelly during Clare’s All-Ireland winning run of 2013, Ballyea have been tipped as a team to watch each year in the Banner county. That year finally came when, after a replay, Ballyea got the better of Clonlara last November.
Ballyea only played their first ever game at senior grade in 2002. They contested the county final in 2003, losing out to fellow parishioners Clarecastle in a bad blooded decider. Ballyea had never been back to a decider since. The only survivor from that team is current goalkeeper Kevin Sheehan, who started at wing forward, aged 17, that day.
This season didn’t start as planned for Ballyea. Their opening round tie against Éire Óg of Ennis saw them in control at half time. The second half saw an Éire Óg resurgence and ultimately they lost the tie after extra time. From then on, each display has been sharper. With the return from county duty of some big names, they began playing a more structured game.
After capturing their first county title, early All-Ireland favourites Thurles Sarsfields awaited just 7 days later. No one, including the Ballyea supporters, expected a win. With just 10 minutes left in the game, they looked to be correct. The comeback that followed gave us some of the best club championship moments for years and, when county football captain Gary Brennan netted to force the tie into extra time, there was only going to be one winner.
The Ballyboys have since survived spirited and strong comebacks against Glen Rovers (Cork) and St Thomas’ (Galway). The lessons learned from that opening day defeat in Ennis coming to the fore.
There are marked contrasts between these sides. Ballyea love close games and have a never say die attitude. It’s no wonder they have not been beaten in regulation time since losing the 2014 Clare quarter-final against old rivals Clarecastle.
Cuala, on the other hand, have been pummelling teams into submission early and then simply keeping them at bay.
The most telling statistic though is in front of goal. Cuala have raised the green flag 17 times this season, Ballyea have conceded 17.
The Dubliners will be looking to exploit this strength and it’s probably why they are slight favourites with the bookies.
If Ballyea are to win, they’ll need Jack Browne, Joe Neylon and Brian Carrig in their full back line to repel the goal threat posed by the Cuala forwards.
They’ll also have to feed good ball to the likes of Kelly, Niall Deasy and Pat Joe Connolly in the attack. With interesting match-ups all over the park, this will be a game of fine margins. This Friday’s game will certainly go down to the wire.
Read More About: AIB Club hurling, AIB GAA All-Ireland Club Championships, ballyea, clare gaa, con o callaghan, croke park, cuala, dublin gaa, GAA, gary brennan, Paul Schutte, st. patrick's day, tony kelly