Cuala manager Mattie Kenny, a Galway selector for the 2012 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, has so far played his cards close to his chest about possibly succeeding crisis hit Anthony Cunningham.
But he’s clearly ambitious and is up there with the leading candidates now having guided Cuala to a breakthrough AIB Leinster Club hurling final via the most difficult route possible.
A first Dublin title in 21 years clearly wasn’t going to suffice for the south-side Dublin outfit who, having already defeated past champions Coolderry, held firm in the face of a strong second-half from the Kilkenny representatives.
Colm Cronin, Sean Treacy and Mark Schutte scored the crucial goals with All Star nominee Schutte’s strike early in the second-half putting the hosts seven clear at Parnell Park. But they were made to work hard for progression to the November 29 final, where they face Oulart-The Ballagh of Wexford, as Clara twice reduced the margin to two points.
The 55th minute dismissal of Clara forward Conor O’Shea for a second yellow card hurt them, however, and Cuala capitalised with two late important points from David Treacy and Cronin.
Like Oulart, Cuala will be bidding for a maiden provincial title in just under a fortnight though without half the baggage. Oulart lost four finals in a row between 2010 and 2013 and it remains to be seen if that psychological hurdle can be surmounted.
“They are seasoned and they have a bit of hurt on their side,” said Kenny of Oulart. “They’ve failed a few times at this level so they’ll have a point to prove. We’re under no illusions of the battle we’ll have in two weeks’ time.
“I can’t talk for Oulart obviously. But I know from my own experience sometimes when you lose, it drags you on to a higher level in the future. Winning, apart from Kilkenny teams, can make a lot of teams soft. Sometimes when you lose, the desire grows that bit bigger and harder and you badly want to get across that line.” Cuala, of course, won’t lack motivation either as they chase their own place in the history books having lost their one and only previous final in 1989.
They have a strong side crammed with inter-county talent and their big guns, the likes of Schutte, Darragh O’Connell and county final sensation Sean Treacy, still just 19, all came good for them.
The chief negative heading into the final is that they’ll be without county man Paul Schutte, their main defender. He’s suffered long-term shoulder trouble and opted to go under the knife last week.
It’s understood he’s facing up to four months out which will also impact on his Allianz league ambitions with Dublin in the new year.
A second defender, Shane Stapleton, brother of Tipperary back Paddy, missed out with a hand injury picked up in the Coolderry game.
Clara gave a good account of themselves but were ultimately caught out by the goals they conceded.
It was a hugely frustrating defeat having felt they could push on in Leinster after a second Kilkenny win in three seasons. But just like back in 2013, they fell at Leinster’s first hurdle.
“We seemed to be always getting a bit up the hill and then we’d slip back down again,” said Clara manager Mick Purcell. The hill literally got too big for us in the end.”
The sides were level six times in the first-half before a 1-1 burst from Cuala approaching the break put them in the clear.
Sean Treacy grabbed their 29th minute goal though it was mostly down to Schutte’s great run and partially blocked shot.
Big brother David Treacy then pointed a free to put the hosts 2-8 to 0-10 up at half-time.
Schutte netted himself just seconds into the second-half after redirecting Cronin’s centre into the Clara net.
Leading by seven, Cuala looked all set to push on for a comfortable win. But they were forced to defend their position for the next 25 minutes or so as Clara rallied.
Free-taker Keith Hogan consistently punished foul play from Cuala and helped himself to a dozen points from frees overall, five in the second-half.
Hogan’s placed ball expertise helped Clara reduced their arrears to two points on two occasions, including with seven minutes remaining.
But O’Shea’s dismissal, his second yellow coming for a high tackle, didn’t help and Cuala deservedly held on.
D Treacy (0-6, five frees), C Cronin (1-2), S Treacy and Mark Schutte (1-0 each), Jake Malone (0-2), Darragh O’Connell and Cian Waldron (0-1 each).
Keith Higgins (0-12, 12 frees), Chris Bolger (0-2), Lester Ryan, Liam Ryan and Jack Langton 0-1 (0-1 each).
S Brennan; R Tierney, C O’Callaghan, S Timlin; S Moran, O Gough, J Sheanon; J Malone, D O’Connell; C Sheanon, C Cronin, C Waldron; S Treacy, M Schutte, D Treacy.
C O’Callaghan for C Sheanon (40), N Kenny for Waldron (60).
K Phelan; D Nolan, S O’Shea, T Ryan; N Prendergast, S Prendergast, D Langton; Lester Ryan, J Langton; Liam Ryan, C O’Shea, J Byrne; C Bolger, K Hogan, C Prendergast.
J Nolan for Byrne (54), J Murphy for Hogan (60), P Nolan for Liam Ryan (62).
Gearoid McGrath (Wexford).