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Wednesday 12 December 2018

Kenny's Cuala on the brink of greatness

Cuala 1-17 L Mellows 0-11

KING CON: Cuala’s Con O’Callaghan gets away from Liam Mellows’ David Collins Pic: Sportsfile
KING CON: Cuala’s Con O’Callaghan gets away from Liam Mellows’ David Collins Pic: Sportsfile

Mattie Kenny wasn't inclined to hypothesise as to how a second consecutive All-Ireland club title would affect Cuala's or his own legacy as the rain feel on Saturday evening in Thurles.

But given the rarity of such an achievement, it's hard to conclude it wouldn't thrust them into the realms of the great club hurling sides.

"It's the pinnacle of every club hurler's career, to get to Croke Park, to represent your club on All-Ireland final day, on St Patrick's Day," Kenny noted after his team's gritty nine-point victory over Galway's Liam Mellows in Semple Stadium.

Fortunate

"We're very fortunate to get the opportunity to get back there again for a second time," he pointed out. "It seems like it was only a few months ago that we were there. The season has gone so quickly."

That season has charted an almost identical path to Cuala's last.

Dublin champions, Leinster champions and now, returned to an All-Ireland final on March 17 against Munster opposition - this time an impressively-stacked Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) team.

In 48 years of the All-Ireland club hurling championship, just four teams; Sarsfields, Athenry, Birr and Portumna have retained the crown.

Given the club hadn't won so much as a county championship since 1994 when Kenny took over, it's been quite the journey for the group and their manager.

At half-time in Thurles on Saturday, it was hard to figure that Cuala were just two points up on the surprise Galway champions of 2017, given they had bothered to do the majority of the hurling yet were punished by the boomingly accurate free taking of Adrian Morrissey.

"I thought in the ten minutes before half-time, Mellows got a bit of a grip in the game," Kenny observed. "So we said he would try and push on in the second half and we did, we got a few early scores to open up a gap."

A string of five Cuala points in the first six minutes of a second half all but buried Mellows and with Seán Moran, Cian O'Callaghan and Darragh O'Connell all excelling at the back and using the ball smartly, Cuala had only to persevere to succeed.

Late on, with Mellows chasing the game, sub Brian Fitzgerald buried the game's only goal to give the final scoreline a suggestion of comfort.

"Those guys are a very grounded bunch," Kenny said. "They keep trying to do the right thing the whole time. Of course we make mistakes. But in general, they're very solid guys.

"They work hard for the team and they bring huge honesty in every thing they do."

Over the past three years, Kenny has grown accustomed to the point of weariness of fielding questions about Con O'Callaghan but again on Saturday, such queries were inevitable.

O'Callaghan's first four touches of the evening yielded three Cuala points.

His fifth won a free for David Treacy, another of Cuala's high-performing components on the night.

"He's an exceptional talent," Kenny repeated for the umpteenth time. "He's a really good player. That's his position.

"But there are lots of lads working to create that space for him and delivering that quality of ball to him," he added.

"Any good inside forwards is all about the quality of ball you can get into him.

"And if we can get quality ball into him, you'd be hoping that he could score off it."

Menace

By the end, Cuala's golden boy had four points to his name but O'Callaghan's menace was palpable even when he wasn't involved, with at least two Liam Mellows defenders engaged in keeping an eye on Dublin's dual prodigy at all times.

For all that, Cuala's victory was constructed on the sturdy foundations of a concrete-hard defence.

But for Adrian Morrissey's sweet-striking, long-range free-taking, the Galway champions would hardly have troubled an umpire in the first half.

Such was the firmness of Cuala's back line, they conceded just three points from play, despite the absence of their captain, Paul Schutte, who is a doubt for St Patrick's Day after failing to regain full fitness from an injury he suffered in the Leinster final last December.

"They were the platform," Kenny confirmed.

"Our six backs played really well. They limited Mellows forwards to two or three points from play, which was a huge defensive performance from them. Like, forwards often get the plaudits," he added.

"But it's everyone working for the team and everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel. And we look for that team performance.

"Everyone just goes out and works for each other."

Mark Schutte's return added a dimension to Cuala's attack, even if Mellows' smart deployment of David Collins as a sweeper effectively negated the goal threat of Con O'Callaghan and Colm Cronin.

Show

"If you get enough points, that's OK too," Kenny stressed.

"Look, it's early February. It's not summer hurling.

"And I thought both teams put on a really good show there," he added.

"The scoreboard probably didn't reflect the effort Mellows put in," he added before retreating to the Cuala dressing-room to begin turning the inhabitants' attentions to another All-Ireland final.

"We'll take a few days off and then we'll go back planning for that."

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