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Monday 18 December 2017

Offaly's best are no pushover but Cuala to rule on

Cuala v Kilcormac/Killoughey O'Moore Park, Tomorrow 2.0, Live TG4

Cuala’s Paul Schutte of Cuala (r) is pictured alongside Kilcormac/Killoghey’s Dan Currams ahead of tomorrow’s AIB GAA Leinster Senior Hurling Club Championship Final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Cuala’s Paul Schutte of Cuala (r) is pictured alongside Kilcormac/Killoghey’s Dan Currams ahead of tomorrow’s AIB GAA Leinster Senior Hurling Club Championship Final. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Sometimes we forget just how difficult it has been, historically, to complete the back-to-back mission now consuming the all-conquering hurlers of Cuala.

The bookies have already decided who'll win tomorrow's AIB Leinster club SHC final.

Never mind that Kilcormac/Killoughey are relatively recent winners of their province (2012); that they enter this Portlaoise decider with a pep in their step, having just blitzed another recent winner, Mount Leinster Rangers, by 17 points ... Cuala are simply too talented, experienced, resourceful and driven to give it all up now.

Or so the perception goes.

In fairness, it's impossible NOT to make them favourites. They carry all the signs of a team still firmly in the zone. As with 2016, form has actually improved upon leaving Dublin.

They have the twin advantage of possessing a talismanic marquee forward (Con O'Callaghan) whose predatory instincts remain as sharp as ever … and yet they aren't one of those club teams so utterly reliant on one player that the game-plan could unravel if he is held.

Cuala have powerful performers and natural leaders in every line of the pitch. But?

Conundrum

That back-to-back conundrum cannot be ignored. The record of defending All-Ireland club hurling champions is anything but a resounding success.

Portumna remain the last successful holders - in 2009 - but they didn't have a Connacht championship to negotiate and also happened to be one of the truly great club hurling sides.

The last All-Ireland champions from Leinster to retain their provincial title were James Stephens in 2005. Prior to that, Birr had won back-to-back All-Irelands in '02 and '03.

Suffice to say, if it was so easy, plenty more would have discovered the year-two formula.

Here's another reason for trepidation as the 'Cuala Ultras' bring their noisy convoy to the Midlands. Unlike Dicksboro or St Martin's, their two November victims, Kilcormac/Killoughey are no Leinster greenhorns. Starting with their breakthrough win in 2012, they've won four Offaly titles in six seasons. This will be their third Leinster final in that period.

Sceptics might question if they're quite the force that conquered Leinster en route to reaching the 2013 All-Ireland final … but there are clear signs of a recent uplift in form.

Moreover, they know how to handle adversity: against Westmeath's Castletown Geoghegan they lost Stephen Leonard to a second yellow just after half-time … their work-rate palpably lifted thereafter and they won a testing encounter by six points.

What followed in the semi-final, against Mount Leinster Rangers, was even more eye-catching. Again, they were reduced to 14 men early - Cillian Kiely after just 25 minutes.

Yet in the 15 minutes after half-time before Rangers also lost a man, they outscored the Carlow men by 1-8 to 0-2. It was arguably the best they've been since that 2012/13 campaign. James Gorman and Dan Currams were unmarkable, sharing 2-8 from play as their team cruised home by 2-21 to 0-10.

On the flip side, midfielder Kiely lost his Leinster Council hearing this week and is a significant loss. Kilcormac have also been sweating on an ankle injury to Peter Healion, although the hope is that he'll be patched up for combat.

Cuala have their own ankle issue: Mark Schutte has missed both Leinster outings and was sporting a protective 'moon boot' on the day of their semi-final against St Martin's.

Will the Dublin ace be risked? Perhaps not, especially since their attack has functioned so prolifically in his absence, amassing 2-20 against Dicksboro and 3-17 against Martin's.

Moreover, having beaten the Kilkenny champions by seven points and their Wexford counterparts by 11, their form graph looks the more substantial.

Presumably video perusal of the above will convince Kilcormac boss Stephen Byrne that you can't go man-for-man with O'Callaghan and trust your best marker to survive intact.

He's a special player who demands double-teaming attention. Trouble is, when you factor in Colm Cronin, Jake Malone, Nicky Kenny and the Treacy brothers, Cuala can hurt you in more ways than one.

They also boast a redoubtable defence backboned by Cian O'Callaghan, Seán Moran and Paul Schutte, plus a midfield greyhound in Darragh O'Connell … proof of serious depth.

And if they can retain appetite and focus for another hour, Leinster title No 2 will be theirs.

ODDS: Cuala 1/7 Draw 12/1 Kilcormac 5/1

VERDICT: Cuala

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