AS CUALA AND Na Piarsaigh progressed through their county campaigns last autumn and moved into the provincial arenas in the winter, the sense grew that they were bound for a club collision on St Patrick’s Day.
Con O’Callaghan and Peter Casey will be two of the key forwards on view on St Patrick’s Day. Source: INPHO
They both got the job done in Dublin and Limerick, then in Leinster and Munster before passing their respective semi-final assignments on Saturday in Semple Stadium and Parnell Park.
Cuala only had a two-point cushion at the interval while Na Piarsaigh faced a three-point deficit at the break and lost two men when the red mist descended early in the second half.
It proved immaterial. Neither Liam Mellows or Slaughtneil could spring an upset. The final pairing that most had envisaged is now in store between the 2016 and 2017 kingpins.
Only five times has an All-Ireland club final been contested by former winners of the championship – in 1998 when Birr defeated Sarsfields, in 2000 when Athenry saw off St Joseph’s, in 2005 when James Stephens overturned Athenry, in 2008 when Portumna overcame Birr and in 2010 when Ballyhale bettered Portumna.
Next month will be a milestone as it’s the first time the two previous winners of the All-Ireland senior club hurling championship take each other on in the decider.
It’s a major feat by the current Cuala and Na Piarsaigh squads to create a culture of success. Cuala ended a 21-year wait for a Dublin senior title in 2015. That was the start of them stringing together three titles on the bounce. They have added a pair of Leinster crowns since then as well as last March’s All-Ireland triumph.
Na Piarsaigh won their maiden Limerick title in 2011, two years after being thrashed by 17 points on county final day. Their honour list since then features four decider wins in Limerick and Munster – they have yet to be turned over in their province – and they achieved national club glory in 2016.
Both clubs have enjoyed meteoric rises and also thrived despite their counties not having celebrated histories on this stage. No Dublin or Limerick club had previously won this championship before their landmark victories.
The strength and class of both sides has been evident in the routes they have embarked on to reaching the 17 March decider. It is set to be the most eagerly-awaited club hurling final since Ballyhale and Portumna crossed paths in 2010 but the St Patrick’s Day showpiece has a habit of being underwhelming.
True the winning stories are always rich in colour and the players savour an unforgettable moment. Over the past decade Cuala, Na Piarsaigh, St Thomas, Loughgiel Shamrocks and Clarinbridge have hit a new milestone for their clubs while Ballyhale and Portumna consolidated their position as heavyweights.
But from the neutral vantage point, the deciders of late have not lingered long in the memory as a series of lopsided games have unfolded. The last three finals have been settled by double-digit margins and the average winning margins over the last ten finals is just under ten points.
Only two deciders in that time frame – 2013 between St Thomas and Kilcormac-Killoughey and 2010 between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Portumna – have been settled by five points or less. It’s part of a wider trend since 1998 with only five club hurling finals decided by that margin.
Club finals can tend to take off in an unexpected direction, the magnitude of the occasion impacting upon players and club sides unable to hit their stride as they adjust to a bigger stage. That’s understandable.
But the potential of the Cuala and Na Piarsaigh clash is clear. The core of both sides have inter-county experience and they pack a serious scoring punch as illustrated by the returns since their 2017 county semi-finals – Cuala hitting an average of 2-17 in six games and Na Piarsaigh firing an average of 2-19 in five outings.
Con O’Callaghan in the inside forward line and Mike Casey in the inside defensive sector were both outstanding in Saturday’s semi-finals. Their potential match-up is an example of an intriguing subplot to next month’s match.
For both clubs the memories of a Croke Park triumph are still fresh. Lifting a second crown will elevate their standing and fuel their drive in the coming weeks.
For everyone else the prospect of two powerful units facing off will only heighten expectations of a thrilling St Patrick’s Day showdown.