Cuala primed to secure SHC three in-a-row
Dublin SHC Final Cuala v Kilmacud Crokes Today, Parnell Park, (3.30)
An historic three-in-a-row awaits Cuala this afternoon when they meet southside rivals Kilmacud Crokes in an eagerly-anticipated renewal of the Dublin Senior Hurling Championship final.
Since winning their first championship in 21 years back in 2015, the Dalkey club have become the standard-bearers in the county and they have shown all the qualities of a team determined to maximise their potential and build on their successes under the astute management of Mattie Kenny.
Kenny has assured that far from resting on their laurels, Cuala have looked to build a dynasty, both within the county but also in Leinster and beyond and their All-Ireland success back in March reflects the ambition of both the management and the panel.
For that to happen, talented hurlers are required but the age profile of the team is also important with key personnel such as Cian O'Callaghan, Darragh O'Connell, Seán Moran, Oisín Gough, Colm Cronin, David Treacy and Paul Schutte all combining a wealth of experience without the negative connotation of too many miles on the clock.
Their presence combined with the youthful energy of Con O'Callaghan and Jake Malone has given Cuala a wonderful balance and while O'Callaghan is rightly deemed a dream for headline writers with his swashbuckling style and eye for a goal, it is the quietly compelling form of Malone that keeps the Cuala engine ticking over.
In the absence of O'Connell for a large chunk of the year, the former Dublin minor Malone has assumed a leadership role around the middle third this campaign and that influence was reflected in his crucial goal approaching half-time against St Vincent's last Sunday.
With O'Connell confirming his fitness with a typically athletic display last weekend, Cuala look to enjoy a decisive edge at midfield this afternoon and how Kilmacud deal with their twin threat will prove instructive to their chances.
Even the most ardent Crokes supporter will acknowledge that their form this year has not hit the heights normally associated with the team and that they were a touch fortunate to come through last Sunday's low-scoring semi-final against Lucan Sarsfields.
However, it also has to be recognised that Kilmacud played the far more composed hurling in the crucial final quarter and if nothing else, they showed their ability to close out the game when not performing at their optimum.
Another positive for the Stillorgan outfit was the influence that Ronan Hayes exerted in a more withdrawn role and his emergence broadens the options available to manager Ollie Baker as he seeks a first title since 2014.
Question marks still hang over them, however, and rightly so, and none more so than in terms of securing primary possession in attack.
That concern is all the more baffling when you look at the proven calibre of Caolán Conway, Oisín O'Rorke, Seán McGrath and Barry O'Rorke while Ryan O'Dwyer made a welcome and typically robust return when introduced for the final quarter against Lucan Sarsfields last weekend.
However, while far from a one-man attack, there is a huge onus on Fergal Whitely to shine this afternoon if Kilmacud are to spring what many would consider a surprise.
Whitely has been the talisman all year but as he struggled to deal with the diligent man-marking of Ronan Smith six days ago, the fluency of the front six suffered incrementally but he has proven himself a player for the big stage and is expected to reaffirm his position when his side need him the most.
Whether that is sufficient to get Crokes over the line remains questionable and even the pain of last year's final defeat to Cuala may not prompt an improved outcome this afternoon.
Twelve months ago, they suffered an appalling start, falling 1-5 behind, and that issue has recurred this campaign with slow starts in their championship wins over St Vincent's and Na Fianna.
While they improved slightly in that regard against Lucan, it's difficult to see them being allowed to retrieve such a precarious position against a Cuala team that tends to get stronger the longer a championship evolves.
The local nature of the final and the familiarity of the players should add a keen edge to proceedings with Bill O'Carroll's personal duel with Con O'Callaghan one to savour and while Kilmacud possess all the motivation in the world, their patchy form makes it difficult to see anything other than a Cuala victory, despite the unique arbitrariness that a final brings.