Clinical Cuala prove they are the real deal
Cuala 3-12 Clara 0-17 Leinster SHC semi-final
After winning the Dublin championship for the first time in 21 years, the big question surrounding Cuala was whether they could further elevate their game to the level required for a successful Leinster adventure.
The answer is a resounding 'yes'. The end point for the provincial campaign is yet to be decided but Cuala will head into the final against Wexford champions, Oulart-The Ballagh in an optimistic mindset after beating Coolderry and Clara.
Coolderry, Leinster champions four years ago, were easily out-gunned and while yesterday's test in Parnell Park was more demanding, Cuala worked through it with impressive efficiency.
Given Kilkenny's pre-eminent position in hurling, their champions are always high-rated but it didn't leave Cuala with any psychological hang-ups. None that were obvious anyway, as they then went about their business in a calm, methodical fashion which provided the platform for a well-deserved win.
Keith Hogan's accuracy from frees - he landed 0-12 - maintained Clara's challenge throughout most of game, which was fussily refereed by Gearoid McGrath (Wexford).
Suffice to say that many of the frees would, in all probability, not have been awarded in Croke Park on All-Ireland day three months earlier, which again underlines the inconsistencies that continue to apply.
"There were times when we were in possession and we got blown up for over-carrying and there were times I thought we'd pressurised the Clara guys but didn't get a free when it seemed as if they were over-carrying," said Cuala manager, Galwayman, Mattie Kenny.
However, he also acknowledged that his side were guilty of "little pulls, little pushes in the back, when there was no need to" and promised to visit it before the final.
That was probably down to the fact that Cuala were stepping up in class, leading to an increase in errors. On the plus side, there was also an increase in many of the more positive elements, which ultimately proved the difference between the sides on a mild, windy afternoon.
Indeed, it looked as if the wind might become Clara's saviour once they began the fightback after falling seven points behind 20 seconds into the second half when Mark Schutte's predatory instincts yielded a poacher's goal off a delivery by Colm Cronin.
Hogan's accuracy from frees left Clara only two points behind (3-10 to 0-17) after 52 minutes and with momentum very much in their favour, it looked as if it might settle into another famous Kilkenny recovery.
With their resolve tested to the limit, Cuala's response was most impressive. They held Clara scoreless from there to the finish, while adding two points from David Treacy (free) and Cronin.
Clara played the final five minutes without wing-forward, Conor O'Shea, who was sent off on a second yellow card. He was unlucky as neither of the offences were especially serious.
Clara were also left to rue a missed goal opportunity in the 40th minute when O'Shea mishandled a pass which should have given him a clear strike at goal.
Cuala were far more clinical with their goal-scoring chances, Schutte's finish providing the perfect example.
Sean Treacy was also ultra-alert when he reacted quickly to sweep in Cuala's second goal in the 28th minute while their opening goal - scored by Colm Cronin in the 15th minute - was a reward for risk-taking.
He could easily have popped over the levelling point but instead opted to try his luck for a bigger return and found the net with a crisp strike.
Kenny said afterwards that he encourages his players to take a chance for goals if the half-chance arises and, on this occasion at least, it worked.
Playing with the wind, Cuala needed to take a lead into half-time, which they duly did (2-8 to 0-10). They would have expected it to be higher but Schutte's strike immediately on the re-start gave them a cushion which, despite Clara's best efforts, sustained them all the way to the finish.
The two minutes before half-time and the opening minute of the second half really were crucial as Cuala out-scored Clara by 2-1 to 0-0, leaving the Kilkenny champions with a huge challenge which ultimately proved too much.
Cuala had prepared diligently for what was always going to be their toughest challenge of the year so far and Kenny was delighted by the manner in which his players coped with the new demands. "They (Clara) put us under serious pressure with the ferocity of their tackling. Our lads handled it really well," observed Kenny.
That will be most encouraging for Cuala as they prepare for what a novel Leinster final pairing, the first between Dublin and Wexford clubs. Oulart have lost four of the last five Leinster finals, leaving them with an intense motivation to make the breakthrough.
They will present a massive challenge but with Cuala improving all the time, they have their sights firmly set on becoming the first Dublin club to win Leinster since Crumlin in 1979.
They will be without the injured Paul Schutte and Shane Stapleton for the final but coped well without them yesterday. Cian O'Callaghan and Oisin Gough anchored the defence while, further afield, Jake Malone, Cronin, David Treacy and Mark Schutte presented Clara with serious problems.
Clara will be disappointed that they were opened up relatively easy for all three goals, while rarely creating chances to test Cuala goalkeeper, Sean Brennan. Still, it looked all so promising for Clara when they led 0-5 to 0-3 against the wind after 11 minutes. Cuala were playing with a degree of nervousness at that stage but once they settled into a rhythm, the pattern changed.
They made it happen through a combination of hard work, clever play and a growing sense that they had the capacity to win. They were eventually proven right on a day that will have provided all Dublin clubs with a boost. And there could be more to come in the final on Sunday week.
Scorers: Cuala: D Treacy 0-6 (5f), C Cronin 1-2, S Treacy, M Schutte 1-0 each, J Malone 0-2, D O'Connell, C Waldron 0-1 each.
Clara: K Hogan 0-12 (12f), C Bolger 0-2, Lester Ryan, Liam Ryan, J Langton 0-1 each.
Cuala: S Brennan; R Tierney, C O'Callaghan, S Timlin; J Sheanon, O Gough, S Moran; J Malone, D O'Connell; C Waldron, C Cronin, C Sheanon; S Treacy, M Schutte, D Treacy.
Subs: C O'Callaghan for C Sheanon (40); N Kenny for Waldron (59)
Clara: K Phelan; D Nolan, S O'Shea, T Ryan; N Prendergast, S Prendergast, D Langton; Lester Ryan, J Langton; Liam Ryan, C O'Shea, J Byrne; C Bolger, K Hogan, C Prendergast.
Subs: J Nolan for Byrne (54), J Murphy for Hogan (59), P Nolan for Liam Ryan (62).
Ref: G McGrath (Wexford).