Limiting O'Callaghan threat holds key for Cuala's rivals
You will do well to find a hurler, of similar age, in the history of the club hurling championships, to match the impact that Con O'Callaghan has had in his first three seasons with Cuala. The first of those in 2015 involved limited exposure, beginning with a substitute's appearance in the Leinster semi-final win over Clara before he was selected for the Leinster final against Oulart-The Ballagh, scoring two points in a six-point defeat.
And last year, well, he had other things on his mind, putting hurling second place when introduced to the Dublin senior football squad by Jim Gavin. When Cuala retained their county hurling title last year, defeating Kilmacud Crokes, he didn't start the match.
He wasn't listed to start in the opening round of the Leinster Championship against Borris-Kilcotton, but played from the off and had scored 3-3 by half-time, finishing with 4-4. O'Callaghan has tended to do exceptionally well at whatever he puts his hand to, but the Leinster club hurling championship has seen him thrive, the young man leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
While Daniel Currams justifiably points to the danger that exists in other parts of the Cuala team facing his Kilcormac-Kiloughey in this afternoon's Leinster final, there is little escaping the influence O'Callaghan has had even in that exalted company.
In no time he has become the front-runner in an attack containing experienced high-profile county players like Mark Schutte, Colm Cronin and David Treacy. After his sensational performance in the Leinster club championship first round last year, O'Callaghan was Cuala's sole goalscorer and top marksman from play (1-3) in the semi-final win over St Mullins, the goal a cracking strike on the volley in the second half, opening up a seven-point lead and killing off the Carlow team's resistance.
Most days he has been the player who has broken the opposition. In the Leinster final last year he was top scorer again from play, with 1-4, destroying the O'Loughlin Gaels full-back line. Slaughtneil fell in the semi-final the following February, with O'Callaghan's goal in the 11th minute the game's highlight, a brilliant finish to the top corner. This time he scored 1-3, again the leading scorer from play.
The All-Ireland final against Ballyea was the only match in which he failed to score a goal in last year's campaign. He had to settle for two points from play. But he still had a major influence. From four first-half possessions he scored two points, was fouled for Cuala's first free and helped set up the first goal for Cronin, with Ballyea overly concerned about O'Callaghan and ignoring Cronin who was left unmarked.
Much of Kilcormac-Killoughey's time will have been spent on how to limit the danger he poses. In the Dublin county final, the Kilmacud Crokes full-back Bill O'Carroll kept a vigilant guard, denying him a sniff of goal, but when that wasn't working, O'Callaghan wandered out the field and scored three big points. The goal that came, the difference between the teams in the end, was from midfielder Darragh O'Connell. Crokes had covered all the standard threats, but O'Connell came in on the end of a cross-field ball, saw a momentary gap and made the most of it.
O'Callaghan carried his remarkable form into the province again this year, being the star player when they defeated Dicksboro a week after winning against Crokes when they rounded off a third county title success in a row. Two nights before the Dicksboro game, he had been declared Young Footballer of the Year and included on the All Star football team. Dicksboro tried three markers on him, the last a formidable athlete and hurler in Cillian Buckley, who was no more able to contain him. O'Callaghan helped create the first goal for Jake Malone, almost had one himself after a typically explosive run, fired over a first-half point and hit a goal attempt narrowly wide with the Dicksboro defence chasing his heels.
With 15 minutes to go he scored the second Cuala goal, at the end of a series of short passes, and the game was over. He repeated his tally of 1-3 in the semi-final win over St Martin's, a match in which he was also centrally involved in their two other goals. In that match St Martin's put Wexford defender Willie Devereux on him but it was no use.
When Kilmacud Crokes crowded their own half of the field in the county final, it reduced the space into which O'Callaghan likes to accelerate and unhinge defences. He found another way when scoring from out the field, but it did limit Cuala to a single goal and kept Crokes in with a chance to the finish. Most teams are gone by that stage. Much of that due to O'Callaghan.
Today's Club Championship Previews
Leinster Club SHC Final
Cuala v Kilcormac-Killoughey
This could play tricks with the Cuala mind as they prepare to face an experienced Offaly side, comfortable on this kind of ground, but disregarded by the bookies, priced at 5/1 and with a six-point handicap. Cuala are good, no question, and have won matches in all kinds of weather, but any team that drops their intensity or focus is vulnerable.
The Offaly champions have returned to the Leinster Championship after a two-year sabbatical to see off the challenge of Castletown-Geoghegan and Mount Leinster Rangers, the latter showing being the more impressive. It came at a cost however, the suspension of midfielder Cillian Kiely, one of their best young players.
They still have plenty of experience in the likes of Ger Healion, Ciarán Slevin, Daniel Currams and Conor Mahon. James Gorman repeating the scoring form of the last round would help too.
Cuala have been exceptionally good, having won a third county title in a row, and maintained the appetite which drove them to an All-Ireland last March. Con O’Callaghan is the obvious threat and Healion does not look the ideal fit for him, and will probably need some sweeper assistance. They also need to curtail the influence of Seán Moran in the Cuala defence.
If O’Callaghan is held, Kilcormac-Killoughey know they have a chance of winning their second Leinster title in five years. But Cuala are worthy favourites.
Galway SHC Final
Gort v Liam Mellows
Pearse Stadium, 2.0
A delayed Galway final due to a dispute involving an ineligible player from one of the earlier rounds. Gort are a familiar sight at this stage of the competition, having won senior championships in 2011 and ’14 and lost last year’s final to St Thomas’s by four points. Liam Mellows haven’t won since 1970 and this is their first county final appearance since then.
Of the last 10 Galway championships there have been five different winners and on five occasions the winners have gone on to win All-Irelands.
Gort, managed by Mattie Murphy, are fancied to be hurling on into February where the winners of today’s Leinster club final will be waiting in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Sunday Indo Sport