When I was co-commenting for Eir Sport on the club championships last September, as the myriad of teams began working their way through their local championships, Cuala and Na Piarsaigh still stood out like beacons in the matrix.
There were some big teams left in the Dublin and Limerick championships, not to mention the provincial championships, but a prospective All-Ireland club final between the pair was already visible in the mind’s eye.
Eir covered the Na Piarsaigh-Doon Limerick quarter-final when many locals fancied a young Doon side laced with county players to spring a surprise, and Na Piarsaigh just swatted them away with the back of their hand before doing the same to Kilmallock in the decider.
Cuala didn’t have it all their own way against Kilmacud Crokes in the Dublin final the following weekend but I suspected that they could take off again in Leinster. And they did. As soon as Na Piarsaigh took out Ballygunner in the Munster final, the clock began ticking down to the showdown between the 2016 and 2017 champions, two big guns ready to shoot it to decide the biggest gun of this era.
When the battle was over on Saturday, the smoke from both sides’ guns was still wafting through the icy cold spring air after the ultimate shootout. This was the epic everyone had hoped it could be. There is nothing between these teams but whoever wins the replay now will cement their status as one of the best club sides of any era.
There were some brilliant races at Cheltenham last week but this was some stamina-sprint between two thoroughbreds.
The viewers at home may have felt that it was scrappy at times but that was more down to the intensity than the quality.
The teams set up in a similar type of manner, bringing bodies deep and to the middle and leaving a couple of their main shooters up top to try and inflict the most damage; Con O’Callaghan, Mark Schutte, Peter Casey, and David Breen.
Casey and Breen got the Na Piarsaigh goals. Mark only really came into his own in extra time when scoring a point and being fouled for two frees. Con was never really able to get away from Mikey Casey but he still had the chance to win the game with extra time almost up.
Mental and physical fatigue was a factor with everyone by then because bodies were breaking down everywhere with cramp and near exhaustion. And it was a testament to both teams that the standard, and especially the spirit and manic will to win, didn’t drop when bodies began to.
Na Piarsaigh will be disappointed not to have won the match in normal time when they were a goal up with three minutes of injury time played. They’ll have been disappointed too to have conceded the free in the first place. I’d say they’ll equally be as unhappy with the set-up in the goal for the free.
You’ll often see a goalkeeper come out ahead of his defenders to face a free in that situation but Podge Kennedy seemed to come out a little too far and the ball deflected off his hurley and past the defenders on the line behind him. In a game of milliseconds, those extra few steps forward could have been decisive.
That’s how fine the margins were in this match but Na Piarsaigh will still surely be a little unhappy too with how slanted the free count was in Cuala’s favour. David Treacy’s 12 points from placed balls to Shane Dowling’s four does tell a story. Treacy was immaculate, while Shane missed a couple of frees but Na Piarsaigh still can have cause for grievance with a couple of those decisions.
They could rightly argue that Peter Casey was fouled before giving a little drag on Paul Schutte’s hurley to concede Cuala’s late equalising free at the end of extra-time. It was well within Treacy’s range but it was a brilliant point in the circumstances.
Both teams will be confident heading into the replay. Cuala will feel they dug it out of the fire twice, and that they will have the momentum now. Na Piarsaigh will have Conor Boylan and Tommy Grimes back, which may be decisive considering the toll that this match will have taken on the two teams. Even if they don’t start the replay, their hunger and freshness will add an extra dimension to Na Piarsaigh. Shane Dowling will also benefit from the match after spending most of the winter recovering from knee surgery.
Given the heroic effort of both teams on Saturday, and the status and history on the line now with a second title up for grabs, neither of these teams will break easy now. Neither will back down.
And it will be absolutely fascinating to see which side will inch their way up that mountain and plant their flag on the summit first.