Cuala have just kept finding the answers when the hardest questions imaginable have been asked of them, writes Anthony Daly.
I’ve never run a marathon. (Jeez, give me a break anyone who thinks I might, or could, at this stage). I wouldn’t have the legs, the lungs or the will, but I’ve always been intrigued by the pain and mental strain that goes with it.
You’d hear of runners hitting ‘the wall’, of reaching that perfect — or imperfect — intersection of fatigue and diminished mental facilities.
I’ve spoken to people who’ve hit that wall, and the mental disorientation that goes with it. They have described it as an almost out-of-body experience, where they feel they’re almost watching themselves run, as opposed to actually feeling the sensation of those repetitive vibrations of pounding the hard ground.
I remember certain hurling matches where I was just flaked late on, of being almost panned out, and having nothing left to give. In the closing minutes in Portlaoise Saturday evening, numerous players looked like they had hit that wall at the end of another marathon battle. And yet, every player on the field was still sprinting, still desperately trying to get across that line first and take their place in the pantheon.
Cuala just breasted the tape first but this was an epic contest between two of the greatest club sides of any era. Both sets of players were heroic in what was one of the greatest club games ever. It was heartbreaking for Na Piarsaigh but successive All-Irelands, and the manner in which they finished the game with four unanswered points, confirms Cuala’s greatness.
Cuala have just kept finding the answers when the hardest questions imaginable have been asked of them. They were beaten by Ballyboden early in the Dublin championship last year. They only qualified from the group on scoring difference but they have kept raising the standard with every performance since. And their final ascent to the summit couldn’t have been more glorious.
You cannot underestimate how difficult it is to do what Cuala have now managed. Three of the five teams to win back-to-back hurling titles were Galway clubs. They were all great sides but they didn’t have to negotiate tough provincial campaigns like Cuala did. As well as winning a tough Dublin championship, Cuala went on to beat the Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Galway and Limerick champions. Serious.
They were beaten twice last week in the drawn game and they came back. They looked beaten again on Saturday when Shane Dowling put Na Piarsaigh ahead heading into additional-time but Cuala don’t do panic because they are driven by some huge characters, men with massive reserves of spirit and defiance.
Sean Moran was a colossus. Cian O’Callaghan was brilliant. Mark Schutte really came good with 1-3, as well as being fouled for a raft of frees. The whole team worked like dogs before Con O’Callaghan eventually found a groove when the game was on the line. The match could still have gone either way but Cuala’s response when the gun was put to their heads was the mark of great men.
You also have to take your hat off to Na Piarsaigh, and the immense character they showed throughout. I was on RTÉ Radio 1 co-commentary with Pauric Lodge, and when Cuala scored their two goals, Pauric said that the title looked headed for Dalkey. I stopped him in his tracks. I knew Na Piarsaigh were capable of coming back, and they did.
They gave it everything, but it just wasn’t enough. And yet, Na Piarsaigh will still have regrets. They won’t be happy with the free count of 17-8 to Cuala. Tommy Grimes was misfortunate for the first Cuala goal, which stemmed from his loose pass. Mike Casey was outstanding on O’Callaghan again before having to go off because he had been suffering with a bug all week, Kevin Downes nearly broke the crossbar with a goal chance. Peter Casey had a half-chance to go for goal with his late equalising point. Defeat though, is an orphan whereas victory has a thousand fathers. And in the end, there was no denying Cuala.
If I was Pat Gilroy after Dublin’s defeat to Tipperary yesterday, the first thing I would have done was drive down the M50, go into Finnegan’s in Dalkey, order a couple of pints, and begin the sweet-talking to the Cuala boys probably singing above on the stools. And if a couple of them still weren’t up out of bed yet, I’d have gone around to their houses and woken them up for a chat.
I know that might sound drastic but that is how it is now for Gilroy and Dublin. They desperately need the Cuala boys back. Dublin need winners, and the confidence those lads will bring, because Dublin looked like a ghost in the second half.
It was all the more galling considering the start they made and the momentum they had built up when leading by 0-9 to 0-1. Yet once Tipp got on a roll, Dublin just collapsed. There was little or no fight shown. The team looked devoid of energy and enthusiasm. Ronan Maher had been sent off on the stroke of half-time but it looked like Tipp had the extra man throughout the second half. Jason Forde scored a point at one stage and there wasn’t a Dublin player within 10 yards or 15 yards of him.
Tipp didn’t even have to break sweat in the second half. They were still on the bus for the first 20 minutes but once they shook themselves from their torpor, they did what they liked. The lack of belief from Dublin was crippling. Instead of looking to drive on and make it 0-12 to 0-1, they were almost waiting for Tipp to wake up, and start clipping them around the ear for their insolence in striding ahead. And that’s exactly the way it played out.
Wexford are at a different stage of their development now under Davy Fitzgerald but, less than two years after Dublin embarrassed Wexford in the 2016 Leinster quarter-final, Wexford’s belief is at the other end of the spectrum. For anyone who had doubts about Wexford’s capacity to dine at the top table, they blew them out the window on Saturday in Wexford Park by taking down Galway.
Their odds are shortening all the time because their younger guns are really beginning to come to the fore now; Jack and Rory O’Connor and Damien Reck were immense. Some of the more established players are beginning to flourish even more, while, just as importantly, Conor McDonald really looked back to his old self. Some of his scores were outstanding.
Wexford Park is definitely worth a couple of scores. The sending-off of Jack Coyne was massive, but shooting 1-23 was a huge score to put up, especially when it was compiled by nine different scorers from play.
That scoring spread certainly underlines how the system is continuing to evolve under Davy Fitz.
They will go bald-headed for the league now. Mr Cody may have something to say about that on Saturday but Wexford look like a team that don’t really care about anyone, or any other team out there, at the moment.
And rightly so.
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