Munster and Leinster go toe-to-toe in the All-Ireland club finale on St. Patrick’s Day, as defending champions Cuala welcome Na Piarsaigh to Dublin in what’s sure to be a titanic match-up.
The Dubliners are looking to emulate Sarsfield (1993-94), Athenry (2000-01), Birr (2002-03) and Portumna (2008-09) as the only club sides to successfully defend their All-Ireland title.
Na Piarsaigh, on the other hand, are looking to reclaim the title they won back in 2016 when they beat Ruairi Óg of Antrim by 11 points.
Cuala are emerging as one of the great club hurling sides, directed by Mattie Kenny, and back-to-back titles for a club from Dublin would firmly establish themselves as one of the modern greats, alongside the likes of Ballyhale and Portumna.
Last year they became the first Dublin club to ever with the All-Ireland crown, before initially winning their first ever Leinster title. It’s been a period of firsts for all involved with the club, and to become the first Dublin club to retain their title would be enormous.
“I’ve a couple of friends there, but obviously everyone in Dublin should be supporting Cuala now, as a Dublin club,” Dublin hurler Danny Sutcliffe told the Mirror, who has experienced first hand the might of Cuala on the Dublin club scene.
“The character to go back-to-back, for a club run, they’re the two best club teams in the country. Na Piarsaigh won it in ’16, Cuala in ’17, so finally you have the two best teams.”
Indeed, Na Piarsaigh have every right to the claim of the top club team in the country such has been their domination of the Limerick and Munster scenes in the past few years. They have won four of the last seven Munster titles, routing Blackrock of Cork on their way to success in 2017.
Both clubs have a contingent of players awaiting a return to their county panels, but in very different circumstances. John Kiely has guided his Na Piarsaigh-less side to Division 1B glory, while Pat Gilroy is patiently awaiting the return of his Cuala contingent to help steady the ship that was faltering during the league campaign.
Na Piarsaigh are coming into the game on the back foot slightly, having been given a great game of it against Slaughtneil in the semi-final.
With red cards to Conor Boylan and Thomas Grimes, the Limerick side needed three goals to overcome the Derry side, having hoped to come unscathed into the final.
Cuala, on the other hand, had a fairly comfortable win over Galway club Liam Mellows in the other semi-final. Without having to get out of third gear they claimed a 1-17 to 0-11 win in Semple Stadium.
What to expect?
One thing to expect, above anything int his final, is the immense work rate that will be displayed by both teams.
Don’t be surprised if this final becomes a template for future clubs to emulate. As Brian McDonnell crunched the numbers for his SixTwoFourTwo blog, the work rate exhibited by both sides is incredible and whoever wins this battle of wills may win the battle on the scoreboard.
With the red carded two missing, Na Piarsaigh will need everything their attacking hotshots can muster.
In Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes they have an experienced county duo capable of wrecking damage to Cuala’s sturdy back forces. They create a foil to the talented brothers of David and Adrian Breen, who along with Peter Casey at corner forward complete an extremely profilic front six.
Cuala will need the exceptional Con O’Callaghan to be at his best on HQ turf and there’s no doubting he will. At an isolated full forward position he has been phenomenal, making the conversion from his usual exploits with a football look extremely easy.
His brother Cian says Cuala are hungrier for this title than last year’s,
“It is a big achievement to get back to Croke Park, especially if you win. But the key word there is ‘win’. Not too many clubs can do it. We have to strike while the iron is hot.” he told the Independent.
“Our hunger is massive this year. It’s just as big as last year, if not bigger.”
Indeed, Cian will have just as much responsibility on his shoulders at full back as his brother at the other end of the field. In addition to the Schutte brothers, Cuala have no shortage of county firepower to match the Shannonsiders.
To have any hope, Na Piarsaigh will have to significantly up their game from the semi-final. Cuala are respected favourites but will have to be on their guard against the potent Limerick men.
Whichever way it goes, it could be a final for the ages.
Throw-in: Saturday @ 4pm, Croke Park | Verdict: Na Piarsaigh