Cuala and Ballyea - the new kids on the block going for glory on St Patrick's Day
AIB All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final: Cuala (Dublin) v Ballyea (Clare) (today, 3pm, live on TG4)
THE stage may be absent of the traditional hurling heavyweights to have graced the Croke Park sod in years gone by, but that doesn’t make today’s All-Ireland final any less engrossing an encounter.
Cuala and Ballyea is a novel pairing because both are relative greenhorns when it comes to this level of competition.
Indeed, when they run out on the field today, it will not only be the first time any Cuala side has done so, it will also be a first St Patrick’s Day appearance for any club hurling team from Dublin.
Drawing from the densely-populated areas of Dalkey, Shankill, Loughlinstown, Dun Laoghaire and Cabinteely, Cuala boasts around 2,000 members - and counting.
Having made their mark in the late 1980s/early ‘90s when they landed three Dublin championships, there had been little to celebrate – in terms of silverware at least – until 2015 saw them end an 11-year wait.
Now back-to-back champions in the capital, Mattie Kenny’s men have grown in stature with each challenge they have negotiated thus far.
The rest of Ireland sat up and took notice when they dismantled Kilkenny kingpins O’Loughlin Gaels in the Leinster final to claim a first provincial title, their speed and power a sight to behold.
It was another chapter in the rise and rise of Con O’Callaghan, the Dublin senior footballer making more of a name for himself with hurl in hand.
Despite not starting either the semi-final or final en route to retaining their county title, the 20-year-old scored 6-10 in three provincial games before adding another 1-3 in disposing of Derry’s Slaughtneil last month.
Cuala will start as slight favourites today, and boss Kenny has been boosted by the return to fitness of Paul Schutte. The Dublin defender Schutte missed the semi-final with a hand injury but is expected to start against Ballyea.
And the slick southsiders will need to be defensively sound if they are to curb the attacking intent of Ballyea.
It is three-and-a-half years since a 19-year-old Tony Kelly lit up Croke Park when Clare beat Cork in an All-Ireland final replay. Today, the 2013 player of the year will run out on to the hallowed turf for the first time since.
How he plays, and how much space he is afforded to weave his magic, will have a huge bearing on where the Tommy Murphy Cup resides this evening.
Ballyea have had a hard road to get here, breaking through the glass ceiling in Clare before carrying that momentum into Munster.
They held their nerve when Cork’s Glen Rovers threatened to drag themselves back into the provincial decider after Ballyea came flying out of the traps, and the Banner men had to repeat the dose in the All-Ireland semi-final.
With 49 minutes gone they led Galway’s St Thomas’s by 12 points but that was cut to the minimum in injury-time, Robbie Hogan’s men just hanging on to make it to St Patrick’s Day.
It’s not just about Kelly though. Gearoid O’Connell has been inspirational from centre-back so far, with leading scorer Niall Deasy lethal in front of the uprights.
With a smattering of inter-county stardust across both teams, neither should be overawed by their surroundings y and there is every chance this game could hang in the balance coming down the final stretch.
Ballyea, though, just have the look of a team who won’t be beaten and that could prove the decisive factor this afternoon.