MARY Cullen's brilliant comeback to top form continued when she left Olympian Linda Byrne trailing in her wake to romp to victory at the Woodie's DIY Inter-Club Cross Country Championships in Tullamore.
The North Sligo star – who only recently returned to competition after an 18-month injury lay-off – had been flying on the road-race circuit but what wasn't clear was if she could transfer that form to the 'country.'
An emphatic gun-to-tape victory that beat Dundrum South Dublin's (DSD) Byrne by a 36-second margin proved she is back to her best on both surfaces and underlined why her inclusion will strengthen the Irish women's team challenge at next month's World Cross-Country Championships in Poland.
Cullen took gold in 27 minutes and 40 seconds, ahead of Byrne (28.16) and North Belfast's Breege Connolly (29.21), but getting four women in the top 12, led by Eilis Kelly (fifth), earned the women's team title for Raheny Shamrocks (11 points), ahead of DSD (17) and Clonliffe (24).
The men's title was a lot tighter after an early six-man breakaway turned into a gripping two-way tussle between Clonliffe's former Irish marathon champion Sergio Ciobanu and St Malachy's Joe McAllister.
It was only in the final 600 metres of the 12km race that Tipperary-based Ciobanu – who came agonisingly close to Olympic marathon qualification for his native Moldova last summer – finally got away, sprinting clear to take gold in 38.26.
He eventually finished 13 seconds clear of McAllister (38.29), with Rathfarnham's Eoin Flynn (38.56) holding off Raheny's Mick Clohisey (39.15) for bronze; Clonliffe (36) retained their team title by a 21-point margin from Raheny (57), with Rathfarnham (80) third.
In Siofra Cleirigh Buttner's absence, the junior women's race proved a thriller and her club DSD still dominated the podium with Sarah Fitzpatrick, daughter of DCU athletics boss Enda and Roisin Smyth, following in the footsteps of her parents, who are both former inter-club champions.
Fitzpatrick survived a late surge by DSD clubmate Isabelle Odlum to win by just two seconds, with Ferrybank's Orna Murray taking bronze.
Young Clonmel star Sean Tobin was the big favourite in junior men's but had to survive a strong challenge from Ballina's Hugh Armstrong, winning in 19.31 ahead of the Mayo lad (19.39) and Clonliffe's Ian Guiden (19.53). DSD, led by fifth-placed Killian Mooney and Jack MacGabhann (7th) won the team title with 38 points ahead of St Malachy's (49) and Clonliffe (68).
Elsewhere, Newbridge's Rose Anne Galligan (Newbridge AC) became the last Irish athlete to qualify for next weekend's European Indoor Championships in Gothenburg.
She got the 2:03.50 qualifying mark by winning the 800m in Athlone's graded meet in 2:03.39, but Raheny's runner-up Siobhan Eviston came painfully close (2:03.67).
Meanwhile, there was also disappointment for Ailis McSweeney (7.52), David Hynes (6.84) and John Coghlan (4:02.55), who needed 7:36, 6.70 and 4:01.00 respectively to qualify.