Con O’Callaghan leads Cuala to first Leinster title

His side were deserved nine-point winners over O’Loughlin Gaels at O’Moore Park

Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell and Paddy Deegan of O’Loughlin Gaels at O’Moore Park. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Cuala’s Darragh O’Connell and Paddy Deegan of O’Loughlin Gaels at O’Moore Park. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Cuala 3-19 O’Loughlin Gaels 1-16 It might have had the atmospherics of a Christmas fairytale, as the Cuala ‘Ultras’ clad in Santa Claus hats filed into O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, but the match that followed, watched by a crowd of about 3,000, needed no seasonal magic to leave the Dalkey club in possession of a first AIB Leinster title. And Dublin’s first since Crumlin 37 seasons ago.

Slight favourites despite facing Kilkenny opposition in O’Loughlin Gaels, Cuala simply out-performed their rivals for more or less the entire hour and showcased some terrific individual displays. Young dual player Con O’Callaghan scored 1-4 to bring his tally from play in the Leinster championship to 6-10.

He even speaks the language of natural scorers, afterwards attributing his success as being, “down to a huge amount of work from the lads, huge amount of space created inside. I’m lucky enough to be putting a couple away in the last few matches. Everyone is doing their part.”

He was a magnetic presence in attack, fastening on to nearly everything that came his way, putting immense pressure on the O’Loughlins full-back line and forcing the withdrawal of original marker Andy Kearns before half-time. In addition to his tally, he was fouled for three converted frees and played a significant role in a further 1-2.

At the back Seán Moran overcame a couple of early tremors to give an indefatigable display of running, covering and breaking forward. In a team that was playing well, he was outstanding and but for O’Callaghan’s fireworks at the other end would have been in man of the match territory.

And it’s important to emphasise that point: this was a collective victory, not just something delivered by a couple of exceptional individuals. Questions about whether Cuala could bring war to accompany their finesse were settled almost immediately as the Dublin champions showed appetite and physicality to scrap hard for possession and send out the clear message that they wouldn’t be out-fought.

Even when things started to go a bit awry and goal chances came to nothing - opposing ‘keeper Stephen Murphy was exceptional and made a number of saves to keep the score-line within reach - or David Treacy suffered the yips on his first half free taking before restoring normal service after the break, Cuala kept pressing and tussling.

O’Loughlins deserve credit, though, for despite the relentlessness of the winners’ tempo they never let up and if they were fortunate to be within touching distance of three points three times in the third quarter they forced their opponents to race all the way to the tape.

So a year after failing to do themselves justice in the final, Cuala found redemption. “Last year we were heartbroken to be honest,” said Mark Schutte afterwards. “Coming back this year, it was probably hard to look past (Dublin) but we knew we wanted to win the Leinster championship. Setting out at the start of the year we set that as a goal but we had to take it each step at a time.”

Colm Cronin struck for the first goal in the seventh minute, following up after O’Callaghan’s lightning raid appeared to have been deflected and it was a lead they never lost. Treacy’s free taking might have been imperfect but it helped to keep the lead when O’Loughlins started to chip away, largely through frees by Mark Bergin.

Cuala struck for a second goal in the 22nd minute: a flowing move started by centre back Paul Schutte - a really important piece of the defensive jigsaw missing last year - and carried on by Treacy and Mark Schutte before O’Callaghan applied the coup de grace.

Murphy came out of goal to cut the deficit to five with a free from his own 45-metre line and at the break the score was 2-8 to 0-9.

Each time the margin was reduced to three in the second half the winners responded. O’Callaghan, Treacy and Darragh O’Connell all scored points to restore the lead.

The hard work never slackened. Seán Treacy was one of those denied by Murphy but he won ball - Cuala had the aerial edge as well in attack - and linked forward movement effectively. His brother rediscovered the dead-ball radar to rebuild a six-point lead going into the final quarter and although Danny Loughnane took a well-struck goal after a sustained, late assault the final word went to Mark Schutte who scored Cuala’s third goal in injury-time.

“We’ve good forwards,” said manager Mattie Kenny afterwards. “They all need attention. You can’t really double-mark any of them. If you do, then you’d be hoping one of the others would do a lot of damage.

“That was the case. Colm Cronin, Mark Schutte, David Treacy across the half-forward line, they were all playing really, really well. It was a really good team performance, especially by our guys up front.”

O’Loughlins’ manager Aidan Fogarty said that it just hadn’t been their day.

“We were very conscious of being slow out of the blocks against Oulart and we said we couldn’t let that happen against Cuala because if they got a couple of early goals we could struggle and that’s the way it happened. You can plan to counteract these things but on the day it just didn’t happen for us and they scored good goals and we were lucky we didn’t give away another few as well. Stephen Murphy make a few great saves right through the game.”

Cuala will play Ulster champions Slaughtneil in February’s All-Ireland semi-final. CUALA: S Brennan; O Gough, Cian O’Callaghan, S Timlin; S Moran, P Schutte, J Sheanon; J Malone, D O’Connell (0-2, one free); C Waldron (0-1), S Treacy, M Schutte (1-1); D Treacy (0-11, nine frees, one lineball), Con O’Callaghan (1-4), C Cronin (1-0). O’LOUGHLIN GAELS: S Murphy (0-1, free); A Forristal, A Kearns, E Kearns; A O’Brien, B Hogan (capt.), H Lawlor; P Butler, P Deegan; A Geoghegan (0-1), M Kelly (0-1), D Loughnane (1-0); S Johnston, M Bergin (0-10, nine frees), M Comerford (0-2). Referee: M Murtagh (Westmeath)

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