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Cuala vs Vincent’s – Senior Hurling Semi-final Preview

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It will be an intriguing battle in Parnell Park on Sunday as the holders face a Vincent’s side that many have fancied as dark horses since early in the championship.

The first and obvious point to note is that, relative to last year, Cuala have somewhat stumbled to the semis, by their own standards. Having brushed aside every side in Leinster and in the All-Ireland semi and final, their form has been a shadow of that which landed them the ultimate crown in March.

You probably wouldn’t read too much into their opening group game loss to Ballyboden, less than six weeks after the All-Ireland final. Indeed, when the need arose, they sauntered through the rest of the group.

Then, however, they barely got over the line against a Brigid’s side who had hardly set the world alight in the group stages.

You have to wonder, is there a bit of a hangover in the Cuala camp?

Cuala in action in the All-Ireland final

More significantly, of course, there may well have been be a good element of “you don’t miss the water until the well runs dry”against Brigid’s.

Both Darragh O’Connell and Mark Schutte were only introduced at half time against Brigid’s, both carrying injuries into the game.

We all know Schutte’s capacity as a ball winning and scoring forward, but O’Connell’s is equally, if not more significant as one of the key players in terms of creating free striking opportunities from pressured situations around the middle third. This is something which serves as a platform to send ball in front of their embarrassing array of forward talent.

What condition these two will be in coming into the game will be key, particularly considering the fact that John Sheanon is suspended.

Vincent’s for their part have been seen by many as a threat, even since before they brushed Jude’s aside in the group stages.

To some extent, however, they’re still somewhat of an unknown entity. We won’t know until next year, or possibly this Sunday, if their victory over Jude’s was evidence of being a top five side or evidence of Jude’s hitting a slump after a couple of boom years. You wouldn’t read much into the Setanta game, and the damp squib that was the Croke’s game, with both sides already through, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Croabh Chiaráin game probably raised more questions than answers. Yes, they were emphatic victors in the end, but basically because they ran a significantly less athletic side into the ground in the final twenty minutes. In terms of what we can expect on Sunday, perhaps the opening forty minutes of that game will be more telling.

O’Callaghan in action against Ballyea

The Tactics

Key to Vincents’ tactical policy is cut directly from the same cloth as their football side – getting off exceptionally quick puck-outs. It’s a double-edged sword.

A) It can run less fit sides into the ground before the end of the game. However, we can forget about that against Cuala. B) It should generally radically increase your chances of gaining a score off the puck-out, as you catch the opposition on the hop.

The problem that I see is that up until the fortieth minute against Craobh, they simply weren’t getting scores off this quick puck-out, typically to the half back line. It wasn’t until Craobh tired that it became profitable, and Cuala simply aren’t going to tire in the same manner.

Even with Craobh sitting a sweeper, their five forwards were managing to cause Vincents’ six defenders trouble weaving the ball through the half back line, frequently turning them over.

Vincent’s had trouble transitioning in the half back line

Cuala don’t sit an all-out sweeper but they are the masters of dropping line by line on the puck-outs, creating a seventh defender, typically Paul Shcutte, by the time a long puck-out or other form of attack has dropped.

So, how this tactical battle will go will be key. If Cuala drop line by line, will Damien Russell in the Vincent’s goal be able to find the half backs in the gaps in between the lines? If so, will they be able to weave their way through this area of the field to either pick off points from the half way area, or look up and find runners amongst a Cuala defence which will probably have an extra defender by that point?

Or, more to the point, will Russell be able to get the pucks off quickly enough that hitting his target will be straight forward. Again, this raises the question, will Vincent’s be able to weave their way through the Cuala forwards, even if they do get the quick puck-out off.

If they can get ball in front of their constantly rotating half forward line, the pacey runs of Cian McBride and Graeme Giblin could cause havoc, even for the best of defenders. And with two bulky men in the full forward line, John Hetherenton and Keith Connolly, the direct route is definitely an option – if they can weave their way in the middle third to allow them to send in the right delivery.

Hetherenton and Keith Connolly are big men

Considering the manner in which Cuala completely stifled Crokes’ capacity to get a foothold on the middle third and possession off the puck-out in the county final last year in the opening 25 minutes, and the manner in which Craobh stifled Vincent’s in the opening forty minutes of the quarters, you have to say, Vincent’s have everything to prove.

That’s not to mention that the key statistical finding from last year’s march’s All-Ireland final was that while Ballyea turned Cuala over six times between their full back line and midfield, Cuala turned them over fifteen times!

You certainly couldn’t bank on Vincent’s consistently transitioning from the puck-out to the forwards trough the half or full back line. Patterns suggest they might struggle, at least until they get into the rhythm of the game.

Hopefully, unlike the two quarters in Parnell Park, the referee will be sharp enough to allow the quick puck-out, which should be a team’s right to play, if their own defenders have cleared their lines.

Of course, Cuala are so malleable, they can bring so many tactical dimensions to their game, so we can only speculate on what course of action they’ll take, in so many regards.

They typically dropped off on opposition puck-outs last year in Dublin, then came the All-Ireland final and they pushed up man-on-man, initially at least, knowing that the Clare men would cause havoc with the short puck-out, otherwise.

Cuala dropped off against Croke’s

Assuming they drop a man back in some shape or form, as they normally manage to filter, as ever, it will mean that their ability to weave through the middle third with possession will be key. Their ability to do so is probably what makes them so special.

This is what typically allows them to get extra man behind the ball, but still have the capacity to pick out forwards with passes in front of forwards, who may well be outnumbered.

This is why O’Connell’s presence is particularly important. His ability in this regard, as well as Seán Moran’s and/or John Sheanon’s are a massive element of their game. Obviously, Sheanon is suspended for this game.

As we all know by now, if they can send ball in in front of Con O’Callaghan and Mark Schutte, it’s likely to be damage limitation exercise for Vincents’ full back line.

Cuala have the ability to find the free man in the middle

Which allows them to pick out outnumbered forwards

That’s not to mention the Diarmuid Connolly factor. Apart from Vincent’s having significantly more in the tank, his second half performance in the previous round against Craobh was key to swinging things in Vincents’ favour. Cuala’s midfield thoroughly dominated Ballyea’s in March, with recent All-Ireland player of the Year, Tony Kelly, to contend with.

The final feature worth mentioning, regarding Cuala’s forwards, apart from their massive raw ability, is how many unnecessary frees Vincent’s gave away against Craobh. If Cuala push them to the pin of their collar, it raises question mark in this regard.

Excluding the All-Ireland final, every side Cuala played from the Dublin quarters on, concede more scorebeable frees than Cuala. Vincent’s conceded some frighteningly soft ones against a Craobh forward line which collectively couldn’t be compared to O’Callaghan, Shcutte, Cian  Waldron and the half forward line of Seán and David Treacy and Colm Cronin in the centre.

Vincent’s are simply going to have to be more disciplined in the tackle if they’re to cause the upset here.

It’s also worth noting that two different defenders conceded four points apiece off Crokes’ Fergal Whitely in their game against Croke’s. Who will cope with Cuala’s running forwards?

Connolly was key in the quarters at midfield

Conclusion

There’s no doubting the fact that Vincent’s have an edge about them that we haven’t seen for some years. They have a combination of lightning pace in the half forward line, and in one corner, with two big ball winners in the full forward line, with potentially one of the best and most athletic hurlers in the country, in Diarmuid Connolly at midfield. Rúairí Trainor’s guile in the half back line complements a tight marking defence with the physical presence and technical ability of Mark O’Farrell, typically at centre back. Saying that, none could cope with Croke’s Whitely!

The fact remains that they’re going to need to turn two major figures on their head, to even make it a 50/50 game of it against Cuala. Beyond all else, they’re going to have to reel in their concession of scoreable frees to something similar to Cuala’s.

Apart from discipline in the tackle, this will require that they can successfully weave through the middle third in a manner in which they struggled against Craobh, and Ballyea, amongst others, struggled against Cuala.

Cuala, even showing less than impressive form in the last game, have been there and done that. Vincent’s have it all to prove. You have to fancy Cuala.

By Stephen O’Meara

@somearagaa

@grassrootsgaa