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Monday 23 April 2018

Hunger is still key to Cuala's historic quest

Semi-final cameo proves All-Ireland appetite

MIDFIELD DYNAMO: Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell
MIDFIELD DYNAMO: Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell

IF you crave one cameo from last month's AIB All-Ireland club SHC semi-final - a snapshot to explain why Cuala stand on the cusp of two-in-a-row history - the tenth minute is the place to start.

The Dalkey men have started brightly at Semple Stadium but still only lead by a point.

Liam Mellows are seeking to burst out of their own half when Jake Malone flings his body forward to block down David Collins. The retired Galway star reclaims possession but is blocked down, a second time, by Seán Treacy.

Finally, as Mellows edge inside the Cuala '65', a pressurised Collins hand-passes towards a colleague only for Darragh O'Connell to burst past his man and intercept.

Seán Treacy is on hand to carry on the move and delivers an inviting pass inside, angled in front of Con O'Callaghan. He initially controls the sliotar on his stick, then engineers enough space away from his marker, Michael Conneely, to arc over a superb point.

O'Callaghan, rightly, takes the plaudits for his technique (not bad for a part-time hurler!) and predatory instincts. But that score would never have materialised, in the first place, but for the selfless efforts further out the field of Malone, Treacy and O'Connell.

Savage

A team that won it all in 2017 was showing no hint of relinquishing the savage hunger that made them kingpins in the first place.

Cuala’s Jake Malone
Cuala’s Jake Malone

But now the bar is about to be raised once more: Cuala, such emphatic All-Ireland champions 12 months ago, will face Limerick's Na Piarsiagh, who were equally impressive winners in 2016.

Back in November, with both provincial crowns still up for grabs, there was a growing consensus that the Dublin and Limerick standard-bearers would be the two teams still standing on St Patrick's Day.

Our heavyweight duo have not disappointed ... and now they finally get to meet (albeit for the first time in the same ring) in a best-of-three decider at Croke Park this Saturday (throw-in 3.45).

The bookies can't make up their minds; no matter where you look, they are virtually inseparable in the betting. But something has to give this weekend; so will it be Cuala's yet-to-be-sated ambition, their appetite for further glory, that propels them across the line?

There are, of course, lots of reasons why Cuala have emerged from 21 years in the Dublin wilderness to complete a hat-trick of titles in the capital; to reach three Leinster finals on the spin, winning two back-to-back; to become the first Dublin winners of the All-Ireland club SHC; and now to come within an hour of retaining that crown.

Carrot

Another tantalising carrot? If Cuala can seal the deal, they will become only the fifth club ever to retain the Tommy Moore Cup. Moreover, this select quartet includes a trio of Galway champions (Sarsfields, Athenry and Portumna) who faced negligible provincial competition at the time. Birr, in 2002 and '03, remain the only other club to go back-to-back.

To stay on the road this long, you need deep reserves of hunger, stamina and character ... but none of this would be possible without raw talent.

"They've a couple of county forwards in a club team. They beat us easily in a county final two years ago," says Danny Sutcliffe of Dublin and St Jude's.

A club rival he may be, but Sutcliffe counts several of the Cuala crew as good friends. He attended the same school as them - Coláiste Eoin. He shared a classroom with Mark Schutte for six years. Paul Schutte was ahead of him in school; Cian O'Callaghan behind him, Con further back. Sutcliffe is gearing up for an Allianz League quarter-final this Sunday - against Tipperary in Parnell Park (3.0) - but that won't interfere with his plans to visit Croker the day before.

Thriller

"I was away last year (in the United States) - I watched it on TV," he recalls of last year's final. He has no intention of missing out a second year. And he's fully expecting a thriller.

Recent history, of course, suggests the very opposite. Six of the last ten All-Ireland club SHC finals have been double-digit landslides. Two more were won by eight points. When it comes to national showpiece events on the GAA calendar, it has become king of the anti-climax.

Will that change on Saturday? Potentially there is every chance, because the presence of two proven winners in the same All-Ireland final hasn't happened since 2010. Even that, mind you, wasn't quite the classic predicted: Ballyhale Shamrocks buried Portumna's quest for three-in-a-row with a deserved five-point victory.

You could argue that neither finalist performed to its peak in February. Cuala may have been mildly concerned to only lead Liam Mellows by two at half-time, despite doing most of the hurling. For Na Piarsaigh, it wasn't so much concern as panic stations after being reduced to 13 men early in the second half, having trailed by a goal at the break.

But both sides dug it out: the Limerick men made light of their predicament to win by seven while Cuala eased home by nine. Which brings us to one of Cuala's standout strengths: ever since losing the 2015 Leinster final to Wexford's Oulart-The Ballagh, they have been imperious outside their county.

It began with an 11-point demolition of Borris-Kilcotton in November 2016 - the game in which Con O'Callaghan, already by then an All-Ireland SFC medallist, announced his small ball prowess by plundering 4-3 from play.

Laboured

From that starting point, their last nine games in Leinster and the All-Ireland series have been won by a cumulative 98 points - an average winning margin just shy of 11.

And yet, several times, they have laboured in Dublin.

Their 2016 quarter-final against Ballyboden St Enda's went to extra-time. They edged out Kilmacud Crokes in that year's county final by a goal, having trailed by two points after 54 minutes.

Last year's three-in-a-row campaign opened with a round-robin defeat to Ballyoden St Enda's.

Then, come the knockout stages, they beat St Brigid's by two points, St Vincent's by two goals (after being hauled back to parity midway through the second half) and Kilmacud Crokes again by a goal in a dogged final.

Maybe these tests of character have been a godsend beyond Dublin.

Or maybe it's simply a case that Mattie Kenny, that shrewdest of managers, has mastered the science of peaking when it matters most.

Either way, Danny Sutcliffe is confident that he'll see his mates lift the Tommy Moore Cup.

"The two best teams are going to be there," he concludes, "but I'd fancy them now. I think they're going to win."

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