How a Tipp man has helped Dublin club make history
After years of coming close Cuala take title with the help of a Tipp hurler
Shane Stapleton laughs when he remembers his introduction to the Cuala senior hurling panel five years ago. "The Defence Forces were in with us on my first night training . . . Jesus, talk about pressure. I had transferred from Borrisoleigh and so I was nervous anyway without those lads roaring at me."
He continues, smiling: "I arrived, togged, said nothing, was put into a group and given the job of carrying ammo boxes. Ammo boxes! It was my first time doing anything like that and sure whatever I did with them, I messed up.
"The Army boys made a big fuss of telling me I messed up too, and a big stretcher was summoned in front of everyone. I had to lie up on it and these poor lads that I had never met before had to complete their drills at speed while they lugged me around. Here was this big lad from Tipp that they didn't know from Adam and they had to carry me all over the place. At speed. Jesus, the looks I was getting."
By the time he returned for the second session a few days later, the ice was broken and Stapleton, who had played his underage hurling with Borrisoleigh, could enjoy the initiation into his new club.
He had met a group of Cuala lads while travelling in America and Canada, and with work bringing him to Dublin he accepted an invitation to join their club. There would be no looking back.
"I didn't know much about Cuala so I did a bit of research," he recalls. "The word was they were a bit soft. I had a few pals on the northside who maintained that if you put it up to Cuala they wouldn't be able for it.
"That was probably the case too at the time. But they were really welcoming. And happy to bring a player from Tipp in. Mind you, they probably got the wrong end of the deal.
"Here was a hurler from Tipp. Paddy Stapleton's brother. On paper it looked good and they probably felt, 'Jesus, this lad could be very useful.' Maybe that was why they got over the stretcher thing on the first night," he laughs.
Last weekend, however, everything fell into place. Stapleton cemented his name in club history, as a half-back on the team that won a first county senior title in 21 years.
Yes, this win had been coming. Cuala had come close in recent times but seemed to be bridesmaids at every wedding. They were beaten finalists three years ago and it looked like their development work might take longer to lead to the breakthrough but all that changed by defeating Ballyboden in the Dublin semi-final, and then beat St Jude's last weekend.
It's a star-studded squad containing a healthy clutch of county players. The spine of the team are in their mid-20s and six of them have played their way into the Dublin senior hurling panel - Cian O'Callaghan, Paul Schutte, Mark Schutte, Colm Cronin, Darragh O'Connell and David Treacy.
The new breed carries massive potential for a club that won its first county title in 1988 and lost the 1989 Leinster club final to Ballyhale Shamrocks. The current generation, up against Coolderry today in the Leinster quarter-final, will have designs on going one step better than the '89 team.
A 1960s amalgamation of the Dún Laoghaire-based Cuala Casements and Dalkey Mitchells had merged an upcoming club with a more traditional one, but there had always been a history of hurling in Dalkey.
And now after the fruits of a golden decade at underage, the number of juvenile teams has doubled in the last few years. They are thriving from their nursery right up to the senior grade.
Armed with a rich and heady tradition, fuelled by years of hurt, they are a squad brimming with talent. Stapleton is delighted: "A lot of the underage work has paid off here. Landmarks like winning under 21 hurling and football titles in the same year. You see the momentum. Through my job, I knew some of the Cuala players were of a really high standard but it's only when you get involved that you see how many more are coming behind them. The soft tag is long gone; they are winners. That's all I have seen since I came here. The hunger is huge."
The desire to prolong this golden run is raw. In the days after beating Jude's they were at Whiterock Beach in Dalkey and in a swimming pool in Killiney recovering. Their manager, Mattie Kenny, lives and breathes hurling.
Stapleton's family travelled last Sunday from Borrisoleigh and greeted him at the final whistle. Having never played senior championship hurling for his native club, this was a remarkable feat for him - and yet another highlight in the family's 2015 momentos. During the summer Stapleton's younger brother Paddy won a Munster senior medal with Tipperary.
And in July their first cousin and former underage Tipp hurler, Vincent Stapleton was ordained to the priesthood in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles by Archbishop Kieran O'Reilly of Cashel and Emly.
Shane sees him as a role model: "He is the sort of guy who just seems to lift everyone. He is one of very few to be ordained in recent years but to see him appearing in the media, on the Anton Savage radio show, for example, I am not overly religious but he's the sort of guy that I want representing me.
"He is young and involved with the locality and his great gift is that he seems to be able to communicate at everyone's level. He's a brilliant person. Mind you he wasn't too shy as a hurler!
"It's been a good year. My mother, father, and my brothers Tim and Paddy were all up for the final last weekend and I also had aunts and uncles there. The first person I ran into was the mother and she gave me a big hug. It just showed what it meant to them as well. Borris' will always be my home, you'd love to be playing with your brothers and cousins and at the end of the day blood is thicker than water. But the water is fairly refreshing in Cuala too."
Still, the wanderer in him remains. When Cuala's involvement in the current championship ends, he plans to go travelling again. He spent the last five years working as a Gaelic games journalist, and admits mixing this with hurling was a challenge. "It wasn't bad when I was freelancing because I was calling my own tune," he said.
"But I did find it tough in full-time employment. Brian Flanagan, my sports editor (at the Irish Daily Star), was brilliant and very understanding. There was one stage when I missed seven games in a row last year. Mattie Kenny had come in as Cuala manager but sure he didn't know me. It was only towards the end of the year when our work calmed down that I got back into the team. What helped this year was that so many Cuala games were played on a Saturday which allowed me to play. I got a great run at it."
He has no regrets leaving journalism. Before he takes off he has a documentary to finish. He is in the midst of examining the lifestyle of inter-county players, shining a microscope on everything from their sleep patterns and protein intake to daily habits.
With the help of high-performance athletic company NADA he undertook the strength and conditioning demands of an inter-county hurler and in the programme he measures his progress against his brother Paddy, friend Brendan Maher, and some of his Cuala team-mates.
"I'm also looking at the whole aspect of inter-county players and managers and their dealings with the media," he explains, saying that the whole area of media relations frustrates him.
"I can come at this from a good angle because it is very difficult for me to a ring a player I know well for a few words - someone like Paddy, Brendan or David Treacy. They have to go off and ask for permission to talk to me even though they would be very close to me. Also, I can see where players have trust issues but the whole culture nowadays is to be on guard and that's not good for anyone.
"I saw it every day in work, interviewing players who are on their guard all the time. Look, I know it's hard for them. Even as I chat for this piece I am aware we are playing Coolderry and I have to be careful as I don't want to overestimate ourselves or underestimate them.
"And it can also be difficult for a player to have 10 microphones shoved under his nose. But gradually I started asking myself, 'how can this interview be genuine?' More and more I found myself going to the second-tier counties where you could get meaningful pieces with a player you could actually get access to."
That period of his life is over, for now, and he can focus on trying to stretch Cuala's remarkable season even further.
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