All-Ireland Senior Club Championship Final (Extra-Time if Necessary)
Ballyea v Cuala (Dublin) @ Croke Park,
Friday 3pm (Fergal Horgan, Tipperary)
It’s the final frontier and that evidence that the stakes couldn’t be higher has already been demonstrated in the lead-up to Friday’s ultimate showdown.
While Ballyea opened up their facilities and opinions to the public in the spirit of promoting their club and parish pride, meanwhile Dalkey is on lockdown as no member of their panel or management are prepared to speak until after the final itself.
Without going so far as to suggesting that they are making a rod for their own back by putting extra pressure on their own players, it still shows the contrasting mindsets that could well extend to the pitch this weekend.
Ballyea’s relaxed manner is indicative of the freedom and swashbuckling panache that have exuded since making their breakthrough in Clare. And while it’s no guarantee that it will alleviate any inevitable nerves on Friday, crucially they have experienced big game players in every line that will be essential to their progress.
Tony Kelly, Gary Brennan, Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne, Gearoid O’Connell, Martin O’Leary and Pearse Lillis have all graced the Promised Land of Croke Park before and are conveniently spread evenly across the field to be able to influence this decider.
Cuala themselves have almost an inter-county team with eight current Dublin seniors in Paul and Mark Schutte, Darragh O’Connell, Cian O’Callaghan, Oisin Gough, Sean Treacy, Sean Moran and Jake Malone while Colm Cronin and Simon Timlin have also plenty of top flight county experience. Goalkeeper Sean Brennan and Sean Treacy were part of last year’s County Under 21 panel that reached the All-Ireland final while the talismanic Con O’Callaghan, a former dual county minor would definitely be Ger Cunningham’s jewel in Dublin’s crown where it not for the fact that football is his first love and he is aiming to make Jim Gavin’s back-to-back All-Ireland champions’ first 15 this year.
Both managements have repeatedly stressed that they only concentrate on their own teams and pay little attention to their opponents but in an one-off showdown for the ultimate honour in club hurling, it would be foolhardy to disregard opposition threats.
Tony Kelly is arguably the greatest hurler in Ireland or at least is on his way to being, and has the unique ability of being able to turn or win a game on his own when on song which has been on every day for his beloved Ballyea this year.
However, while Paul Schutte would be seen as Cuala’s chief man-marker, the defender who missed their All-Ireland Semi-Final with Slaughtneil with a hand injury, is equally required to anchor the defence at centre-back.
Instead, having successfully retained their Dublin crown, Cuala have evolved completely since King Con O’Callaghan returned from Dublin’s All-Ireland football success in September.
Four start have yielded 7-13 for the Cuala Under 21 targetman with his pace, strength and keen eye for goal proving too hot to handle so far. However, in order to accommodate their new scoring sensation, manager Mattie Kenny has worked his tactics around his full-forward.
The fundamental aim is to leave O’Callaghan as a lone target at full-forward where he can equally run the channels or directly run at his marker, with every other forward roaming deep to provide space but also smother the middle third and puck-outs from both ends in order to accentuate the supply-line.
In contrast to Niall Deasy’s aerial ability, Cuala don’t tend to concentrate on primary possession from puck-outs outside of Mark Schutte and Colm Cronin but instead ensure that the ball is broken to ground where they have a number of eager runners to pick up breaks.
Therefore they are expected to perform more of a swarm zonal marking job on Kelly and Co. around the centre in the hope of feeding the insatiable O’Callaghan.
That’s why Ballyea simply cannot afford to leave Jack Browne isolated at full-back if they are to prosper. Imposing their gameplan on Cuala will be Ballyea’s chief priority but they do have to bear in mind that Cuala have scored 17 goals and only conceded six at the other end in their ten games in contrast to their own record of scoring 11 but leaking 16 in the same number of ties.
The fundamental question remains however as to how much Cuala have been really tested since winning the Dublin title in late October? While they can only beat what’s put in front of them, certainly the standard of opposition is questionable as they made little work of Borris-Kilcotton (Laois), St Mullin’s (Carlow), an ageing O’Loughlin Gaels (Kilkenny) and a limited Slaughtneil (Derry) challenge on their way to Friday’s decider.
Ballyea meanwhile finally showed their mettle in seven tough county championship ties before taking down All-Ireland favourites Thurles Sarsfields and their heir apparents St Thomas’ who had previously claimed All-Ireland honours in 2013.
So for all Cuala’s individual prowess on paper, they will not have met such a collective juggernaut as Ballyea who have proven capable of rising to every occasion to date.
All-Ireland finals are for winning after all so if they can produce one last relentless display, the Bally Boys appear destined to be crowned as the top of the club hurling nation.