Opportunity knocks again for Oulart
Wexford kingpins desperate to lay their Leinster final bogey, writes SEAN MORAN
The film Groundhog Day was released in 1993 and provided a handy cultural reference for the travails of Wexford hurlers at the time. That same year the county went to two replays in the league final against Cork and some months later saw the Leinster final snatched off to another day by Kilkenny. Wexford didn’t win either title. Tomorrow the county’s perennial standard bearers Oulart-The Ballagh contest their third consecutive Leinster club hurling final and fifth in all. This is a record for any club yet to win the title.
Wexford manager Liam Dunne hurled for the county during the groundhog days and was there when the cycle was broken with Leinster and All-Ireland success in 1996. A former Oulart player and manager he’s not sure about the comparison.
“If I was to go back in my early career, I lost a county final in 1989 and then with the county, Walsh Cup finals, Leinster finals, three National League finals in four years. I was wondering, ‘will it ever happen?’ The difference is these guys know what it takes to win county finals. They’ve won the last four and been in the last nine finals and won seven of those.”
Dunne was in charge for the most recent final disappointment in the past two seasons before being appointed to the Wexford job. He outlines the intensity of the club’s obsession with winning Leinster and the effort already invested – if they win tomorrow, a staggering four straight years with just five months off. “I took over in 2009 and we started work in February – it was November when Ballyhale beat us in extra time. We started the next year in January and were going to the following January (the 2010 Leinster final was postponed) when O’Loughlin Gaels beat us.
“We started again a month later and went until December last year when we lost to Coolderry. Pat Herbert took over and they started back in February and are still going. They got a few breaks the last day but the effort put in is unbelievable.”
Last week’s comeback against Ballyhale – even allowing for Henry Shefflin’s injury-enforced departure in the first half – was all the more surprising given the view amongst many in Wexford had been the champions weren’t going as well this season. “They’re now a battle-hardened team with two serious setbacks under their belts,” said Dunne. “Ninety per cent of people have been giving out that they aren’t hurling well but they’re winning games when they have to. They were nearly beaten by Ferns in the county quarter-final before it went to extra time and Kilmacud ran them to a point. But as a result there’s been no complacency.
“Looking at it from the outside, Darren Stamp has retired from the county but the hurling he’s done against Kilmacud and particularly against Ballyhale is as good as it’s ever been. He’s the main cog; even looking back on last year, Coolderry targeted him.You can see it in the video – they’ve two guys on him all the time.
“What I like about this year is that there isn’t the same pressure to win Leinster. The last couple of years under me there had been that pressure and things didn’t go for us in those finals. The first year (against O’Loughlin Gaels) Lar Prendergast was sent off and Rory Jacob missed the penalty before half-time. Then last year – and I’m taking nothing away from Coolderry – we had 17 wides and hit six into the ’keeper . . .”
“We’re winning close games all this year. We’ve beaten the Kilkenny champions the past two years. People might say that that doesn’t matter because we lost the finals but those wins were steps along the road. . . .”
Dunne is wary of Offaly champions Kilcormac-Killoughey whose predecessors Coolderry punctured last year’s balloon. New champions can bring an abandon to their play against more anxious favourites. “I remember in ’94, our first county title, we took Birr to a replay in Leinster. They went on to win the All-Ireland but back then we’d no baggage. We’re desperate now.”
After the disappointments of the past two years and the consensus Ballyhale were zeroing in on yet another Leinster title, there is a real sense Oulart have been granted an unexpected reprieve. “Every club has its time,” says Dunne. “This is Oulart’s time – and they’ve got to take it.”