Tuesday 12 December 2017

Cuala's rise all started with the kids ...

Renaissance has been two decades in the making and now they're hungry for more

Cuala's Colm Cronin
Cuala's Colm Cronin
Cuala's Mark Schutte is tackled by Coolderry's Barry Teehan and Trevor Corcoran in last Sunday's AIB Leinster Club SHC quarter-final

Today, Cuala find themselves on the cusp of qualification for a Leinster club senior hurling final. Just one more hour of deftness and defiance could see them past Clara and into a provincial decider.

Not a bad place to be for a club that, until just a fortnight ago, had gone 21 years without a county title.

Damian Byrne was on that last capital-conquering Cuala team. The former Dublin goalkeeper harks back to 1994 and can actually spy the little seeds that germinated and kept on growing until finally bearing fruit against St Jude's two Saturdays ago.


Why? Because, even as those seasoned Dalkey campaigners won the Dublin SHC that year - their third in history, their third in just six seasons - the future was already starting to look bleak.

"When we won the championship in '94, there were very few players coming through - probably only about 50 at that stage," Byrne recounts. "Now we have over a thousand under the age of 18 - covering the two codes, and the girls' football and camogie."

In other words, Cuala's current success story looks built to last - unlike the last one.

Byrne was at the vanguard of efforts to revitalise the club from the bottom up, establishing the nursery - now called the academy - that would lay the foundations for a future generation of Cuala (and Dublin) hurlers. The Schuttes, Treacys, Cian O'Callaghan, Colm Cronin ... how many might have slipped through the gaps otherwise?

"We developed summer camps, school leagues; we put a lot of work into getting parents involved; we developed various training regimes," he explains.

Back then there were very few local schools playing hurling and football. Put bluntly, this was not GAA country.

"Even though we were winning the championship in '94, there was very little coming behind us. So we had to stabilise it initially for the first few years, then rebuild a structure that would work. And that's what we did," says Byrne.

"We basically had to start from scratch again. At the end of the day, it doesn't work unless parents are involved - and past players. So everybody has contributed to it," he stresses.

"In '94 when we won the championship we had very little behind us, but now we've won the championship and there's teams going back to the nursery, so we've lines of teams all the way up."

Byrne has a long history of preaching the small ball gospel. He worked for three years with the county board, helping to co-ordinate its hurling development squad system and regional teams. He now runs Cuala's Sports and Social Integration Project, a government-supported initiative that promotes Gaelic games in the area while doing invaluable work on drug education and social inclusion.

His brother John Paul - a colleague of Niall Quinn's on the Dublin team that qualified for the 1983 All-Ireland minor final - is now a Cuala selector.

Damian has nothing but praise for that management team, led by Galway's Mattie Kenny.

"The introduction of Mattie Kenny has brought a whole new steel to the team, and their hurling skills have gone up - first touch, scoring, all that," he explains.

"Mattie is the top layer of the cake. We've put all the stuff together, we've nurtured it over the last 20 years and looked after them and got the skill level up - but it's really at the serious business side of things that he has brought a whole new ball game to it."

Byrne was in Tullamore last Sunday to witness Cuala's emphatic provincial start - a 14-point demolition of Coolderry. "I thought they were all great," he enthuses.


And yet he has seen enough - from his own playing days included - to appreciate that Sunday's semi-final in Parnell Park is a new day and a very different, almost certainly far tougher, challenge.

Byrne played in goals when Cuala contested their only Leinster final thus far - in 1989. They had toppled the All-Ireland holders, Buffers Alley, in a replay to get there ... only to lose by 11 points to Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Clara don't have Ballyhale's pedigree but, as Byrne warns, "any team from Kilkenny" must be respected. Now, finally, Cuala can measure themselves against the best.

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