Preview: AIB All Ireland SHC Final – Ballyea v Cuala:

Friday March 17

AIB All Ireland Club Senior Hurling Championship Final

Ballyea (Clare) v Cuala (Dublin), Croke Park, 3pm, Live on TG4

By Cian O’Connell

In December when the AIB Provincial Championships ended Ballyea, Cuala, St Thomas, and Slaughtneil were still standing. Only St Thomas’ had operated in an All Ireland Semi-Final previously, the other three were in new territory. So this novel Final pairing ensures intrigue surrounds the St Patrick’s Day showpiece.

Two clubs worthy of praise for how they’ve gone about their business, especially during the past decade, collide at GAA headquarters.

Both have invested heavily in youth with proof supplied by how many from the two outfits are established senior inter-county hurlers.

That is a reward for the significant work carried out in Ballyea and Cuala – places where the passion for the game is very much the same.

With the Treacys, Schuttes, and O’Callaghan’s polished and prominent, Cuala have been threatening to deliver recently.

Two Dublin Championships in a row offers hope, but Cian O’Callaghan highlights the importance of the 2015 Leinster Final defeat to Oulart-The Ballagh.

“Really a big moment for us was when we lost to Oulart The Ballagh in the Final, we had a lot of momentum going into that match,” O’Callaghan says.

“We had won Dublin for the first time since 1994, we were playing week in, week out. We were playing nearly every weekend, we had a two week break maybe for the Final and we were nearly in shock: how do we manage this two weeks?

“I suppose we didn’t prepare as well for that match, but that probably gave us a lot of learnings to take into this year.

“So at the start of the year our aim was to win a Dublin Championship again. We took that game by game. Thankfully that gave us the opportunity then to go into the Leinster campaign, to right the wrongs of the previous year, to put the improvements we had made into practice. Thankfully we beat O’Loughlin Gaels in the Final.”

That featured a determined and defiant display from Mattie Kenny’s team, who also took charge early on against Sluaghtneil.

Ballyea, powered by a golden generation of players such as Paul Flanagan, Jack Browne, and the splendid Tony Kelly are keen to deliver on the greatest stage of the lot.

A week after earning their first Clare Senior title Ballyea participated in a Munster Championship epic with Thurles Sarsfields in Ennis.

It was a vital hour for Ballyea, who knew they had truly arrived by beating Thurles Sarsfields.

“I think the Thurles game,” Kelly says when asked what was a defining moment in their campaign.

“I suppose from winning the County Final, because our goal at the start of the year, once we got beaten in the first round, we’d an eight or nine week break to get our house in order to beat Newmarket and we got over that and we were winning games and we got to the County Final, that was our be all and end all.

“We didn’t care, once we could get there and win that, that was it. It had never been done in the club and we won that on the Sunday, we’d Thurles the following Sunday. To be honest with you, going out against Thurles, you wanted to go out and give a good account of yourselves and have a crack off it, but you were never thinking you were going to beat Thurles, with the team they had.

I think once we beat that, it was kind of like, ‘right, we might as well have a right good crack now off the Munster Club Final and see where that takes us’. I think our performance in the Munster Club Final solidified that we actually are decent enough here, we’ll have a right good crack and we’ll knuckle down, try to get to Croke Park because we’re only one game away from it. I think the Thurles game gave us the belief that we’re able to compete with Thomas’, Thurles, Glen Rovers. I think the fact that when we came out of Clare, we beat Tipperary, Cork and Galway, three big counties.”

What impresses Kelly is the fact that certain similarities exist between the two clubs.

“Even watching Cuala, I can draw parallels, looking at their team, they’ve the very good county players as well and their club players, there isn’t that much of a drop off,” Kelly states.

“They have that balance. I think we found that this year, without our club players we wouldn’t be where we are either. I suppose talking to people, a lot is made out of Con O’Callaghan or David Treacy, but they have a lot more players than that.

“I think definitely from our point of view, you can get caught up trying to mark them lads and come up with special plans to mark them lads but I think focusing on ourselves to try to get our own performance because I think if you zone in on one or two of those lads, three or four others will hurt you.

“They’ve done two in a row in Dublin so they’ve that experience as well of winning. They’ll fancy themselves as well just as much as we will.”

Ultimately that is why this match may go the distance; a fascinating encounter awaits.