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Wednesday 15 August 2018

Cuala's quest on the brink of epic climax

All-Ireland Club SHC Final Cuala v Na Piarsaigh Croke Park, Today 3.45, Live TG4

SILVERWARE ON THE TABLE: Kevin Downes of Na Piarsaigh, (left) and Cuala’s Cian O’Callaghan come face-to-face today for the biggest prize in club hurling. As the two most recent winners of the Tommy Moore Cup, the final should be a far more even contest than the one-sided deciders served up over the last number of years
SILVERWARE ON THE TABLE: Kevin Downes of Na Piarsaigh, (left) and Cuala’s Cian O’Callaghan come face-to-face today for the biggest prize in club hurling. As the two most recent winners of the Tommy Moore Cup, the final should be a far more even contest than the one-sided deciders served up over the last number of years

Neutrals can only hope that, after all the excitable build-up, this year's AIB All-Ireland club senior hurling championship doesn't go the same lopsided way as so many before it.

The partisans from south Dublin and the Limerick suburbs won't care, so long as they're the ones celebrating some time after 5pm this evening.

On paper, though, this decider should serve up the white-knuckle thriller so sadly lacking over the past decade and more of club hurling finals in Croke Park.

It has all the ingredients, starting with pedigree, as the two most recent winners square off for the Tommy Moore Cup. Na Piarsaigh landed their maiden title with 11 points to spare over Cushendall in 2016; Cuala followed their trailblazing, history-making example by dint of last year's 12-point blitz of Ballyea.

That latter result was far from a one-sided exception. Since losing their first provincial final in 2015, Cuala have won nine games in Leinster and the All-Ireland series by a cumulative 98 points - almost 11 points per game.

They have escaped several tight corners in Dublin in that same period, but their closest result beyond that was a 2-20 to 1-16 win over Dicksboro last November, a game in which they were never seriously threatened.

Their most recent success, against Liam Mellows of Galway, was equally routine and contained several facets that have been a recurring theme under Mattie Kenny. Namely a well-drilled, tigerish defence, led by Cian O'Callaghan and the indomitable Seán Moran; appetite for breaking ball around the middle-eight; cohesive link play; the ability to seek out their inside totem, Con O'Callaghan, with early and accurate ball... and then you-know-who does the rest.

For once there was no green flag from Con, yet he still clipped a sumptuous 0-4 from play, with his creative imprint all over another four points.

Tougher

Na Piarsaigh had to work far harder for their final place, reduced as they were to 13 men for much of the second half against Slaughtneil. But, strangely, they found it far tougher with a full 15 against the Derry outsiders, who led by three points at the break.

Maybe it took those red cards for Conor Boylan and Tommy Grimes to reignite Na Piarsaigh; yet it was the introduction of Shane Dowling, reduced to a bench role because of injury, that proved the real difference. Not just with his outrageous goal but with his earlier catch and assist for a Kevin Downes major.

Boylan and Grimes, both All-Ireland-winning U21s with Limerick last year, are now suspended, reducing the options available to manager Shane O'Neill. Countering that is a longer involvement for the mercurial Dowling who, on his day, can be unstoppable.

There is some talk that the challengers might seek to unhinge Cuala's last line via route-one ... in which case Moran's aerial prowess might be required further back. The Dalkey defence should be boosted by the return of Paul Schutte, with positive signs that he's over his hamstring injury.

In truth, this final is laden with beguiling 'ifs' and 'buts'. It could be an epic. We're sticking with Cuala to earn back-to-back titles.

ODDS: Cuala 11/10 Draw 8/1 Na Piarsaigh evens

VERDICT: Cuala

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