Cuala join the giants of club hurling with back-to-back All-Irelands

Valiant Na Piarsaigh finally vanquished after another enthralling encounter

Cuala celebrate back-to-back victories in the All-Ireland club senior hurling championship after victory in the final replay over Na Piarsaigh. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Cuala 2-17 Na Piarsaigh 1-17

How does it feel. When you’ve played in not just one but two justifiably epic All-Ireland club hurling finals that becomes a sentence, not a question. In terms of both victory and defeat.

For Cuala, that feeling of winning and defending the title will take some time to settle. At least until the journey starts all over again in just two weeks, with the first round of the Dublin championship. So goes the club calendar.

What it meant to Cuala and their loyal band of supporters was instantly visible in Portlaoise on Saturday evening, the celebrations no doubt continuing long into the night back in Dalkey. Not just a club anymore, but giants of club hurling. For the players and management the first thrill was reaching the destination, then the looking back on the journey.


“Someone said to me that in hurling and in sport, you’re training and living for the 15 minutes after the match, because that’s the unbridled joy you get from a victory like that,” said Cuala manager Mattie Kenny, the Galway man who in just four seasons has now guided them to back-to-back All-Ireland and Leinster titles, plus three Dublin titles.

“There’s definitely no enjoying the actual game. Enjoying the game is for the supporters. It’s a job of work we have to do on the sideline, to support the guys. To help in some small way with the decisions we make on the sideline.”

No Dublin club had won this title before Cuala lifted it last year, and now they’re just the fifth club in history to defend it – after the Canning giants guided Portumna in 2008-09. In beating Na Piarsaigh, the champions of two years ago, after bravely resisting defeat in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day, this possibly puts Cuala in a class of their own. The best was yet to come.

It took a properly heroic display of determination because Na Piarsaigh made them fight tooth and nail for it  – a suitably thrilling sequel after the sides ended up level in their 44-score shootout in the chilly wind of Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.

“The last ten minutes was epic,” added Kenny. “Sometimes we were attacking and then it would break down to their big men at the far end – they looked so dangerous. But we always talk about the group, about everybody working for one another. The character that’s within our group.

“It’s about everyone working for the team and no-one being bigger than the group. We couldn’t be prouder of this bunch of players. They’re an exceptional bunch.”

Stood up

Two second-half goals within 41 seconds – coming in the 39th minute – had given Cuala a six-point cushion, but their true resilience had yet to be tested. Substitute Nicky Kenny – replaced just before the start by Paul Schutte – hit the first of them, making the most of a skewed pass in the Na Piarsaigh defence; Mark Schutte followed that up with a second, a few blinks of the eyelids later.

Na Piarsaigh hit straight back with two points and then a goal of their own, David Breen tearing into the Cuala defence, on 50 minutes, and not long after that they were level again. Then a point down. That’s when Cuala really stood up, hitting the last four points of the game.

Shane Dowling had put Na Piarsaigh a point up as the clock spilled into injury time, only for Con O’Callaghan to fire over a brilliant equaliser when Cuala needed him most. With extra-time seemingly looming, Cuala showed pure audacity to make three points in that time, two frees from Treacy – one brilliantly manufactured by O’Callaghan – before Mark Schutte fired over one more point at the death.

Cuala’s Sean Moran blocks a shot from Kevin Downes of Na Piarsaigh at Portlaoise. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“We knew we were the luckier team to come away the last day,” said Treacy who finished with 0-9. “So we had more things to improve on, worked on those throughout the week, and took our goal chances when they presented themselves.

“And we keep saying ‘don’t play the occasion’... The second you step back and say holy crap, did I just do that? Good luck. But now we can look back on this for the rest of our lives. It will only properly sink in weeks, the way my dad talks about his championship wins 10, 15 years later.

“When you’re trying to do this, you look at Kilkenny, Dublin, and it’s so, so hard to win games back-to-back. It was such an uphill climb, then up against an absolutely amazing team like Na Piarsaigh, well organised, 10 intercounty players, so we will look back and think we cannot believe we won this.”

Indeed Na Piarsaigh manager Shane O’Neill had a hard time putting words on the losing side of it, although he was entirely gracious, making no issue of those late frees which helped swing the game in Cuala’s favour (the final free count was 17-8 in Cuala’s favour).

“They’ve been two absolute epic matches, without a doubt the best two sides in the country over the last few years,” said O’Neill. “For Cuala to do back-to-back is an unbelievable achievement, and they’ll give three-in-a-row a right rattle as well.

Extremely proud

“But we’re extremely proud of our guys, they gave absolutely everything they had. To be six points down and go a point up showed unbelievable character. Our lads have got so much character, and it’s been shown over the last seven  years, and particularly over the last four when this management team has been involved. We couldn’t fault them to a man. They’ve been just absolutely superb.

For Con O’Callaghan, shackled and handcuffed by Mike Casey last week (nailing just a single point in injury time), there was a little more room this time. His opening point on 22 minutes was pure style, deftly fetched and then sent straight between the posts. By way of a brief footnote he’s now won an incredible 10th titles within the last 12 months – not forgetting his All Star and young footballer-of-the year accolades.

David Treacy missed a couple of frees after his 100 per cent record a week ago, but was still leading from the front – sending over two more frees late in the first half to give Cuala a one-point cushion at half time, 0-10 to 0-9. Adrian Breen and then Kevin Downes hitting the Na Piarsaigh scores to keep them the minimum away.

Team captain Paul Schutte was a late addition to the Cuala starting 15, their captain dropping into the half-back line, just about lasting until half-time before his hamstring tore again, probably ruling him out from any involvement with Dublin this summer.

But if any of this achievement spills over into the county team then Dublin hurling can only be in a better place, because it’s never been better round Dalkey.

CUALA: S Brennan; O Gough, Cian O'Callaghan, S Timlin; P Schutte, D O'Connell (0-1), S Moran (0-1, a free); J Sheanon (0-1), J Malone (0-1); S Treacy, D Treacy (0-9, seven frees, one 65), C Cronin; C Sheanon, M Schutte (1-2), Con O'Callaghan (0-2). Subs: N Kenny (1-0) for C Sheanon (26 mins, inj), S Stapleton for P Schutte (30 mins, inj).

NA PIARSAIGH: P Kennedy; J Boylan (0-1), M Casey, N Buckley; A Dempsey, C King (capt), K Kennedy; S Dowling (0-5, four frees), W O'Donoghue; R Lynch, D Breen (1-0), D Dempsey (0-1); A Breen (0-5), K Downes (0-2), P Casey (0-2). Subs: T Grimes for M Casey (31 mins) C Boylan for Lynch (39 mins), G Brown (0-1) for Buckley (40 mins), M Foley for Buckley (59 mins).

Referee: Paud O'Dwyer (Carlow).

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics