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Sunday 18 November 2018

Cuala show their class in epic battle

Cuala 2-17 Na Piarsaigh 1-17

Cuala captain Paul Schutte lifts the Tommy Moore Cup after being presented with it by GAA president John Horan Pic: Sportsfile
Cuala captain Paul Schutte lifts the Tommy Moore Cup after being presented with it by GAA president John Horan Pic: Sportsfile

The heartiest laugh of Saturday evening came from Mattie Kenny as the light faded in Portlaoise and Cuala had secured their place among the pantheon of great club hurling teams after one of the greatest All-Ireland club finals.

For two consecutive Saturdays, these great champions had duked it out like the hurling heavyweights they undoubtedly are, swapping the lead, momentum and advantage over 150 minutes of an epic duel.

And then Kenny was asked whether he had been able to enjoy it all.

"Enjoy?! Ha!" he roared, tilting his head back against the wall of the tunnel in O'Moore Park.

"There's definitely no enjoyment in it!

"Someone said to me that in hurling and in sport like this, you're training and living for the 15 minutes after the match, because that's the unbridled joy you get from a victory like that."

Talented

Taken in isolation, Cuala's victory was extraordinary in its constitution, an achievement borne out of Kenny's meticulous management, a rare generation of such talented hurlers and their collective drive to succeed.

When placed alongside last year's win, it elevates this Cuala team to another plane entirely.

To go from being the first Dublin team to win an All-Ireland to just the fifth team ever to win the Tommy Moore Cup in consecutive years takes a very special, highly motivated group.

To achieve the second leg of that feat by beating a team such as Na Piarsaigh in a replay is the stuff of immortals.

"The first year here, we were trying to build a culture within the group," Kenny recalled. "And we tried to develop systems of play and an environment where lads can progress and express their hurling ability.

"Obviously there was always potential there. But where that potential is going to take you, you'd always be dreaming or hoping. You'd always have targets. Having set these targets and going on to actually achieve them is two completely different things. As time goes on, this group, they're getting so experienced.

"They've come through tough periods and some tough matches. And that keeps building the character in the group."

Really, the only thing that separated these sides was Cuala's amazing ability to do the better things in the essential moments.

Just as they made the biggest plays when Limerick's Na Piarsaigh were at the cusp of victory in the drawn game, Cuala kept clear heads for the part of the match when the All-Ireland had to be won last Saturday.

Con O'Callaghan, for instance, might have had another day when his influence was less than what we have come to expect, but his artistry emerged just when it was most needed.

O'Callaghan's equaliser 12 seconds shy of the allotted 60 minutes, his stampeding run at three Na Piarsaigh defenders that resulted in an injury-time free and his assist for Mark Schutte's final score of the game, were all vital plays.

Glorious

At the back, Cuala's spine seemed reinforced after taking a bit of battering in Croke Park last week.

Cian O'Callaghan kept Kevin Downes much quieter than he had been a week ago while Seán Moran, perhaps Cuala's most consistent player these past two glorious years, had another heroic display at number six.

Mark Schutte (1-2) was a force of nature up front and while David Treacy's free-taking wasn't nearly as pristine as it had been in Croke Park a week previous (four wides from 12 attempts), it was deadly accurate when it was most required.

Na Piarsaigh's manager, Shane O'Neill, cut a dejected figure afterwards but he did at least take solace that his team had played a huge role in what was perhaps the greatest All-Ireland club final in history.

Certainly, over the two games of this tie, the quality and entertainment was transcendent.

"Without a doubt the best two sides in the country over the last few years," he pointed out.

"The standard of club hurling is at a level .... it's just absolutely ridiculous the way it's gone.

"The physique of the guys, the pace of the hurling, the quality of it is just absolutely superb.

"For Cuala to do back-to-back is an unbelievable achievement and they'll give three-in-a-row a right rattle as well."

For Kenny meanwhile, the magnitude of his team's achievement was only beginning to dawn.

Only the great teams do back-to-back and now Cuala's claims on such status were undeniable.

"It's about everyone working for the team and no-one being bigger than the group," he said when asked to identify the genesis of their success.

"They're just an exceptional bunch."

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