Club

Group 1 : Cuala, Ballyboden, Crumlin, Faughs

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With the current All-Ireland champions, two of last year’s quarter finalists, and a Faughs side generally haven’t been that far off the mark against the big guns in recent years, there’s an argument that this is the toughest group of the opening round. Certainly Crumlin and Faughs will feel so.

For those with a penchant for tradition, it’s also the only group to contain four clubs who’ve won the senior championship.

Of course, Faughs and Crumlin aren’t the powerhouses they were in the eighties, and Boden aren’t the dominant force they were five to ten years ago, but this group still has the bookie’s two favourites.

In fact, if we’re to go by the bookies form, this group is a shoe-in for Cuala and Boden, something you might buy into if Crumlin hadn’t beaten 2014 and 15 finalists, Jude’s, in last year’s group and Faughs hadn’t drawn with Cuala, as well as Lucan in the group stages in 2015.

Saying that, you do have to give weight to the fact that Cuala are All-Ireland champions, and Boden took them to extra-time in last year’s quarter final.

Saying that, two years have passed since Faughs drew  with Cuala and Lucan, and even then, Balinteer recorded their only win in two championship years against them. Last year’s quarter finalists, Crumlin, probably represent a higher chance of pulling off the surprise, though each have a number of their better players who are past their prime.

Individually, Crumlin certainly don’t have the raw ability and pace of either Cuala or Boden, but they apply a very savvy defensive system, which when it functions correctly, makes them a tough nut to crack.

Saying that, their application of a sitting extra man at the back last year back-fired against O’Toole’s in the quarters when the spare man which it created for O’Toole’s was used far more efficiently than theirs.

And if there’s a side who know how to apply the spare man at the back, it’s Cuala. Paul Schutte is the master of this free role and the Cuala half back line and midfield the masters of using an extra man to throw the ball around and create free strikes in this area of the field.

Seán Brennan in goal, is probably the one of a handfuk of keepers in Dublin with the same ability as O’Tooles’ Brendan McLoughlin to ping a ball to a free half back’s chest, and he has the vision to go with it.

The other point to note in terms of Crumlin’s loss to O’Toole’s last year is that for some God unknown reason, the referee wouldn’t allow Crumlin to play quick puck-outs. So we actually didn’t get to see Crumlin with the full extent of their tactics.

Saying that, it seems unlikely that they’d have the legs to keep playing the ball back into play quickly on puck-outs against either Cuala or Boden, so all things considered, maybe it is a tall order to expect them to topple either.

Whatever chances they have of toppling Boden, not so much because Cuala are grossly superior to Boden, which they’re not, but on account of the style they play, it seems unlikely they’ll beat Cuala at this possession game which they master.

Boden play a somewhat more old-school game where the driving runs from the likes of Shane Durkin and Niall McMorrow, in particular, in the middle third, are capable of cutting oppositions open, a key element of their game.

If Crumlin’s defence can get under their skin and if Lee Coleman can dominate the middle and spray ball to the likes of Alex Quinn in the corner, they may be more likely to beat Boden than Cuala. Of course, they will be underdogs in either case. It would be an outside chance against Boden. I couldn’t see it happening against Cuala.

All of this, of course, assumes that they’ll beat Faughs in their opener on Thursday night, which you obviously can’t assume.

It’s 2014 since Faughs have made it out of the group stages of the championship, and even longer since they beat a real championship contender, so the prospect of them beating Cuala or Boden will be somewhat daunting. They haven’t been that far off the mark in recent years, but the age dynamics are going somewhat against them. To beat Boden or Cuala, at this stage, is likely a step too far.

In fact, if Crumlin can apply their efficient game plan, I’d fancy them to win the opener against Faughs, setting them up to have a crack at Cuala and Boden.

Of course, the potential tragedy for whichever side wins this opening game between Faughs and Crumlin is that they could win their opener and manage to beat one of Boden or Cuala, there’s still a real chance they could go out on four points. It’s  a lot of “ifs and maybes” though.

The juicy tie of the opening round, undoubtedly is Cuala versus Boden. The bookies two favourites pits the All-Ireland champions against the only side to draw with them in normal time in their whole 2016/17 campaign.

On one hand, it’s difficult to understand how the bookies have Cuala at even money and Boden at 7/2 to win the championship when it took extra time to separate the sides last year.

Saying that, for a large part of the second half of that game, Cuala were completely dominant until a late surge from Boden drew them level. And of course, again in extra time, Cuala were completely dominant and won, keeping Boden at arm’s length.

We have to remember that Con O’Callaghan presumably won’t be available for the group stages, so we shouldn’t expect Cuala to be just as devastating as they were outside of Dublin since November.

Such is the tactical nature of Cuala’s game, how they’ve swung in periods of highs and lows against both Boden and Croke’s last year, it’s a game that could go any way. It’s not beyond reason that they’ll completely dismantle Boden and have their half back line and midfield pick holes and play nice balls in front of Paul Schutte, Nicky Kenny and Séan Treacy, and beat them by seven or eight points.

It’s equally not beyond reason that Boden will squeeze them in this area of the field and make it a 50/50 game. In Conal Keany, Simon Lambert and Paul Ryan, they have a trio of top inter-county/former inter-county forwards up front if they can get around Cuala’s defensive structure. Saying that, that trio managed just a single point between them in last year’s quarter final.

Then there are the dynamics of Cuala coming off the back of an All-Ireland win. Is it an advantage because it will bring an added swagger, not to mention two championship games against top opposition in the last eight weeks, or is it a disadvantage because, psychologically, an All-Ireland winning side might not just be ready for business five weeks later?

Who is to say? All things considered, however, I think that Boden are in with a bigger shout than might be considered here. Considering that they’ll have been primed for this week, whereas Cuala will have been primed for mid-March, and the nature that everybody studies the champions intensely, I’d stick my neck out and say I marginally fancy Boden. Very marginally.

The likelihood is, however, both will make the quarter-finals.

Prediction

1) Ballyboden

2) Cuala

3) Crumlin

4)Faughs

By Stephen O’Meara