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Monday 24 September 2018

Cian: Fear of losing is what drives us on

Cuala now rank among the great club hurling sides

On the mark: Mark Schutte of Cuala celebrates scoring a late point during the AIB Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Final replay against Na Piarsaigh at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise
On the mark: Mark Schutte of Cuala celebrates scoring a late point during the AIB Hurling All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Final replay against Na Piarsaigh at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise

The scale of Cuala's achievement only fully reveals itself when you go searching for comparison.

It's as instructive to note the club teams that didn't win consecutive All-Irelands as those who did.

The great Blackrock team of the '70s, the Newtownshandrum group credited with starting Cork hurling's stylistic revolution after the turn of the millennium and the Ballyhale side of Shefflin, TJ Reid, Michael Fennelly, 'Cha' et al - none of them, despite their myriad successes, managed to win back-to-back All-Irelands.

As Cian O'Callaghan, Cuala's inspirational full-back, told the Herald in the aftermath of their second crowning: "I think only four teams have won two All-Irelands in a row before us.

"That was in the back of our minds coming into this match - let nobody tell you that it wasn't."

Driving force: Cian O’Callaghan of Cuala keeps his eye on the ball against Na Piarsaigh in Portlaoise last Saturday
Driving force: Cian O’Callaghan of Cuala keeps his eye on the ball against Na Piarsaigh in Portlaoise last Saturday

"Because it means so much more than even last year. There's a lot of emotion there."

For sure, O'Callaghan's team have a long way to go to rival the remarkable feats of Birr, whose own successive Tommy Moore wins were their third and fourth All-Ireland club titles in just nine glorious, storied years.

But it's not a stretch now to put Mattie Kenny's team squarely shoulder-to-shoulder with any other club team since 1970, the year an All-Ireland competition was introduced for the respective provincial winners.

True, Portumna's two All-Irelands in a row came within a greater repertoire of achievement, part of three titles in four years and five Galway Championships in seven.

Ditto Athenry, club winners in 2000 and '01 who also climbed the summit in 1997.

Rattle

Con O'Callaghan
Con O'Callaghan

So perhaps another All-Ireland from Cuala at some stage in the lifespan of their still young team would guarantee their standing.

As now ex-Na Piarsaigh manager Shane O'Neill pointed out in those highly emotional moments after last Saturday's epic: "For Cuala to do back-to-back is an unbelievable achievement and they'll give three-in-a-row a right rattle as well."

But even if they don't, their legacy is a rich one. They will be recalled as the great pioneers of Dublin club hurling, becoming just the second side from the capital to win a Leinster title, in 2016, and the first to be present in Croke Park on StPatrick's Day.

Secondly, the degree of difficulty they endured in winning this second title is hugely impressive.

Three of the four previous back-to-back All-Ireland winners were Galway sides - Sarsfields in 1993 and '94 were the other - meaning they never had the sort of provincial challenge that faced Cuala over the past two winters.

Post Dublin, Cuala beat the champions of Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Galway and, finally, Limerick to prevail.

The last, most difficult leg of that arduous journey, saw them hang on for dear life in the drawn game on St Patrick's Day and find the big plays at the vital time in the replay.

Thus, Na Piarsaigh themselves will play an unwitting and unwanted part in Cuala's story.

Only five times has an All-Ireland club final been contested by former winners of the championship - in 1998 when Birr defeated Sarsfields, in 2000 when Athenry saw off St Joseph's, in 2005 when James Stephens overturned Athenry, in 2008 when Portumna overcame Birr and in 2010 when Ballyhale bettered Portumna.

This year was the first time in history that the All-Ireland club final had been contested by the two most recent winners.

Classics

Hence the instant classics we got on consecutive Saturdays.

"That was the toughest match I've ever played," O'Callaghan confirmed. "The first day was the same.

"We were looking back at the drawn match during the week and the commentator said it was the first match since 2001 that was a good All-Ireland final.

"That was basically two inter-county standard teams. Willing to die."

"It could have gone either way. Luckily for us, the ball dropped our way in the last few minutes.

"And the lads showed unbelievable character. It hasn't always happened for Con, for Colm Cronin, for Mark Schutte.

"But at the end, when we really needed them to come good, they came good in spades."

Which is what could characterise them as great champions, regardless of what else they achieve now.

They were almost dead and buried twice in the drawn game and lost both the lead and all momentum as the clock ticked towards 60 minutes in Portlaoise.

Cuala, it seemed, were allergic to losing.

"I suppose that's what drives you, doesn't it? The thought of losing," O'Callaghan notes.

"The last big match we lost was to Oulart-The Ballagh.

"And during the week, I was thinking about that game.

"I was thinking about that sinking feeling, when you know that you're actually as good as another team, but it just doesn't happen.

"For the last two years, we've improved our game so much. That defeat really spurred us on.

"I don't know about the rest of the lads but during the week, I was thinking: 'No, I'm not letting that happen again. We are not letting them beat us, no matter what it takes'."

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