Cuala's strength-in-depth can overcome the threat of Tony Kelly
Preview: AIB All-Ireland senior club hurling final: Ballyea (Clare) v Cuala (Dublin)
Ballyea’s Tony Kelly alongside Cuala’s Cian O’Callaghan ahead of their meeting in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
With his sound knowledge of hurling in both counties, Clare All-Ireland winner Ollie Baker, who managed Kilmacud to the Dublin final, came to the conclusion that the team that beat Cuala would win the All-Ireland. On the last day of the championship that remains true but the final question has yet to be answered.
Both clubs bring great stories: Ballyea and their parish of 700 come to Dublin with a clutch of county players and one of the top contemporary hurlers inspiring them, while Cuala have emerged from what had been, until recent times, alien territory for the GAA on Dublin’s southside to be the capital’s first representatives in a St Patrick’s Day hurling final.
Tony Kelly loves Croke Park. It suits his speed and bewildering range of skills. There is hardly another hurler in the country who you would back more confidently to win a match on his own.
Ballyea have able deputies and Niall Deasy has shared the scoring burden (2-52 against Kelly’s 1-69) and hit 1-2 from play in the semi-final. Yet it’s hard to see how the Clare champions can win if Kelly is bottled up.
In short, Cuala had better have a plan for him or they will almost certainly lose. Whether Mattie Kenny asks a man-marker like Cian O’Callaghan or one of his athletic centrefielders, Jake Malone or Darragh O’Connell, to track the 2013 hurler of the year, there has to be some strategy.
The Dalkey club, however, look to be a slightly stronger all-round collective. Their half-back line was outstanding in the semi-final win against Slaughtneil, denying the Ulster champions any foothold in the match and they are expected to be further strengthened by the return of Paul Schutte after a hand injury that kept him out of the semi-final.
Ballyea had a harder run through the championship, having to overcome All-Ireland favourites Thurles Sarsfields in Munster as well as Glen Rovers and the All-Ireland semi-final threw them in against former champions St Thomas’ from Galway.
They have sailed close to the edge at times, springing a Lazarus-like recovery in Thurles in the provincial semi-final and surviving a similar turnaround when Thomas’ came hurtling back at them in the final quarter of the semi-final despite being 12 down with as many minutes left.
There is a theory that the Galway side, who had observers in attendance when the University of Limerick gave Ballyea a beating in a challenge match, may have underestimated their opponents – who were missing their captain and screening centrefielder Stan Lineen on the night – and by the time they were disabused of this miscalculation it was too late.
It was noticeable how Cuala guarded against anything similar against Slaughtneil, who had hoped to make inroads with a big start in the semi-final, but the Dublin champions were ready and established themselves early.
A critical area will be the Ballyea defence. They are up against a formidable unit. David Treacy and Mark Schutte are Dublin starters and the former’s brother Seán was a high achiever with the county under-21s and appeared for the seniors in last year’s championship.
Con O’Callaghan is probably the most talked-about youngster in the game even though he is committed to Jim Gavin’s footballers rather than Ger Cunningham’s county hurlers. His goal-scoring feats (seven goals in the last four matches) will demand a big performance from Jack Browne or whoever is handed the task.
Ballyea have structure in defence but do they have the pace to deal with the Cuala attack in Croke Park?