Cuala vs Kilmacud Croke’s – Senior Hurling Final Preview
On Saturday afternoon we’ll see a repeat of last year’s Dublin Senior Hurling Championship final, when Kilmacud Croke’s will take on champions, Cuala.
It’s probably difficult at this point to dispute the fact that we’re looking at the two best sides in Dublin, and equally difficult to dispute that, in Cuala, we’re looking at what is, or at least over the last three years has been, the best.
Croke’s, of course, will dispute that and feel that they can knock them off their perch.
Let’s not forget that after giving away a 1-5 to no score lead in last year’s final, Croke’s managed to haul themselves back into the game and take a lead into the latter stages.
There are a couple of dynamics which we should compare to last year’s final.
Firstly, Cuala undoubtedly came into that final on the back of a more battle-hardened route. They had gone to extra-time to see off Ballyboden in the quarters and played out a highly tactical semi-final against Lucan where they led by just two points with eight or so minutes left to play.
Croke’s, by comparison, had sauntered into the final, brushing Craobh Chiaráin and O’Toole’s aside in the quarters and semis.
Not that Cuala needed to be battle-hardened, and not that Croke’s aren’t either, but anybody who has played championship hurling or football knows that it takes time to get to the pitch of a big game if you haven’t played an intense and competitive game or two in the preceding weeks.
It may not have been a coincidence that they went 1-5 to no score down before they kicked into gear twelve months ago.
This year, Croke’s have come through two nail-biting knock-out games, where late scores won the day, one a late goal to come from behind. This will undoubtedly stand to Croke’s.
Of course, that’s not the only potential reason why Croke’s had a horrid opening last year. Apart from some early wayward shooting, particularly from frees, they were thoroughly tactically dismantled in the opening twenty minutes of that game.
As ever, in games featuring these two sides, with their respective managers, Mattie Kenny and Ollie Baker, you can expect this to be a highly tactical affair.
The key element is going to be the puck-outs. Neither side will go man-on-man on the opposition puck-out. You could virtually bet your house on that.
And based on last year’s final, previous games this year and common sense, we can assume that it will be the key element on Saturday.
Each side will leave five, and possibly four up front, and try to split the opposition’s defence. Or alternatively, as coincided with the turnaround in the sides’ respective fortunes last year, Croke’s may well drop line by line, with the full forward line completely dropping to half way to the half forward line and two or three of the half forward line dropping towards the middle.
Whatever way they cook it will leave respective keepers the option of the potentially risky ball the defence or the long one where the opposition are likely to have an extra man, ready to be first up on the break, or at least to swamp the opposition if they gain primary possession.
To that end, the significance of Seán Brennan in the Cuala goal and Eoin Dalton in Crokes’, will be somewhat akin to the quarter back in American football.
Whichever keeper can read how the game is unfolding, size it up more accurately and dictate affairs the more will set the platform for their side to potentially dominate.
Let’s not forget that last year’s final ran in three distinct periods – the opening 22 minutes where Cuala ran up a 1-5 to no score lead, the next 25, particularly the seventeen after half time where Croke’s scored eight unanswered points to take a two point lead, and the final ten or so when Cuala got back on top.
Each of these three sections was distinctly related to one side having huge problems clearing their lines on the puck-out. Crucially, Cuala went from two points down in the 53rd minute to leading by a point less than three minutes later, off the back of three Croke’s puck-outs in a row!
Significantly in this regard is the manner in which Cuala turned Vincent’s over on their own puck-out in the opening twenty minutes of the semi-final, scoring 1-2 off a few puck-outs where Vincent’s went short but failed to transition out of the half-back line.
By contrast, in Crokes’ semi-final, in the first half, with Lucan applying a similar, but more simple strategy, a number of Crokes’ puck-outs, with the wind, ended up down the throat of Lucan’s seventh defender, Chris Crummey.
In fact, into the wind, early in the second half, Croke’s were massacred for four points on the trot, unable to clear their lines from the puck-out.
If there’s a pattern pertaining to the respective likelihood of the two sides dominating the tactical affairs off the puck-outs, it’s Cuala who are the more proven in this regard.
The manner in which they played ball through the narrowest of channels in their own defence against Vincent’s, you’d have said was reckless, only they were never caught out, and they always seem to “get away with it”.
Saying all of that, the key element of Cuala’s tactical dominance in the opening third last year was that Crokes’ spare man, created off the puck-out dynamics, sat in front of the full back line. A grand tactic in football, or against a less than superbly savvy hurling opposition – but it was Cuala!
They used their extra man to create free strikes from the middle third straight over the bar, with Crokes’ spare man only protecting against a goal chance, but obsolete in terms of preventing point chances.
To give dues to Baker, a superb tactician, this may well have worked against all other sides and it may have required twenty minutes against Cuala to realise that they were dealing with a horse of a different colour, technically, and therefore tactically.
Of course, these dynamics may have changed since then when many of us had only heard rumours of a young lad who came off the bench in the final that day.
In some regards it’s Hobson’s choice for Croke’s. The game clearly swung last year when their extra man pushed higher out the field in order to be able to exert pressure in that part of the field. Dangerous as Cuala’s inside forward line were and have been, it made sense.
In fact, both sides have such a embarrassing array of forward talent that you could be forgiven for sending out the defenders to pick up whoever comes into their position.
That’s with one obvious exception. To apply such a tactic this year, would mean to leave Con O’Callaghan inside man-on-man, not to mention Mark Schuttte! Would you be well?
Schutte was the number one forward in the 2016 championship, but O’Callaghan is simply another level, probably from anything that modern Dublin hurling has seen.
The tactical dynamic of the semi-final left Vincents’ Dublin veteran Rúairí Trainor as a sweeper, whereupon he more or less double marked O’Callaghan. It was quite effective for 45 minutes. Then in the final quarter he scored 1-1 and was fouled for two scored frees.
When he gets the ball man-on-man, his pace and balance literally looks like a professional athlete against amateur ones, and in reality, that’s basically what we’re talking about.
You’d imagine that Bill O’Carroll will mark him, but in all reality, if the Colm Boyle’s of this world couldn’t cope, you simply have to assume that Croke’s will have to manufacture a way to keep a spare man in front of him. And that runs the risk of being torn asunder in the middle third like last year when they applied the same strategy!
Of course, that brings us to the obvious absence in Cuala’s side of late – Darragh O’Connell. His absence shouldn’t be underestimated. We might expect that John Sheanon, returning from suspension, will line out with a view to spoiling Naomhán O’Riordáin in the middle, as he did Tony Kelly in March. If he starts, that would leave O’Connell to weave the magic in the middle. If he only makes a second half appearance, as in the previous two rounds, it will significantly compromise Cuala’s capacity to dominate the middle third.
And Croke’s have almost as frightening a forward line, and possibly more to come off the bench, in the likes of Alex Consedine.
Obviously, Ryan O’Dwyer has been a huge loss, and how much of a part he will play will be hugely significant also.
Saying that, in his absence, Fergal Whitely, has taken to the central role like a duck to water. He scored eight points from play against Vincent’s, three against Na Fianna, and even against the top man-marking of Ronan Smith in against Lucan, he popped up with a few key plays late on.
Presuming Seán Moran lines out on him at centre back, he’ll have his hands full. And, of course, we all know how dangerous their full forward line of Barry O’Rourke, Oisín O’Rourke and Seán McGrath is.
Apart from that, the other key duel will be between Ross O’Carroll at centre back and Colm Cronin at centre forward. Cronin is the pivot around which the Cuala forward line revolves, while O’Carroll, apart from his match winning late scores in the last two rounds, was Crokes’ dominant player against Lucan from centre back.
Compared to last year’s final there are things in Crokes’ favour. The tougher route to the final will surely be significant. The tactical lessons learned from the opening twenty minutes of last year’s final will surely stand to them. And we have to assume they’ll be ravenous to win. Naturally, there will be questions about the raw appetite of any side who have done what Cuala have done in the last 24 months.
If it was just down to that, I’d say those dynamics would possibly tip it in Crokes’ favour. But it’s not just down to that.
There’s the added factor of Con O’Callaghan, who only came off the bench in last year’s final. You simply have to factor it in. Leave him man-on-man and he’s likely to cause carnage. Put a spare man in front of him and you run the risk of Cuala using the extra man in the middle third to tear you apart.
With that in mind, I’d just about fancy the Dalkey men to make it three in a row.
By Stephen O’Meara