Oulart-The Ballagh ready to cross the final frontier


Clock is ticking on Wexford champions’ bid for breakthrough at provincial level, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

When the good, well-got committee men from Oulart-The Ballagh came knocking on Pat Herbert’s door back in January, it didn’t cost him a thought to usher them off his stoop. Herbert is one of club hurling’s nomads, a former Limerick wing-back with positive references on his CV from his time with Ahane and Toomevara. He spent three months with Oulart away back but, truthfully, he had no desire to get the band back together.

It took special pleading from Keith Rossiter and Rory Jacob to change his mind. Oulart had won three in a row in Wexford and six of the last eight. Yet still they had no Leinster title to point to. Herbert relented once he saw how it fuelled them.

“As soon as I joined them at the end of February, I could see the enthusiasm oozing out of these guys. They were self-driven. It was as if they were saying, ‘We’re not just going to give up hope of ever winning a provincial title’.

“My first job was to get them to climb down from that and focus on winning in Wexford.

“After that, it wasn’t said all the time or anything but you could get the vibes. Just in bits and pieces of conversation, maybe after a championship match or whatever. You might be talking about who we’d get in the next round of the championship and eventually it would come around to, ‘Jesus, if we could only get out of Wexford this year, we’d have a chance’.”

Darren Stamp has seven county medals to his name but Leinster remains elusive.

Does it bug him? “Ah, of course it would, yeah. Every year you win your county final and you’re thinking you’re making steady progress and then you get into Leinster and all you want to do is make a final. Make a final and anything can happen.”

They’ve made it the last two years only to come away defeated. O’Loughlin Gaels pipped them in 2010 after they had a man sent off. Coolderry held them at bay last year as they shot 17 wides. Sometimes it’s bad luck, sometimes they’re just not good enough. Dominance on the home front can have its downside.

“The Wexford championship is so weak at the moment that we’re not getting tough enough games before we go into Leinster,” says Stamp. “It doesn’t really help. In saying that, this year was a lot tougher in Wexford than other years.”

Most people accept Oulart really should have cashed out at least once by now – they hold the unwelcome distinction of having played the most Leinster finals without winning one. Four times the bridesmaids, four times denied.

“It wouldn’t be weighing on the club,” says Martin Storey, a stalwart of the mid-1990s team that lost two Leinster finals on the bounce. “But fellas would be saying, ‘Look we have to do it sometime. We have to get the breakthrough here.’ It’s a matter of keeping plugging at it. The club is in the top 10 teams in Ireland. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Whether there is or there isn’t, nobody questions the bona fides of their opposition tomorrow. With seven Leinsters and five All-Irelands, Ballyhale are undisputed winter kings. Yet Oulart fancy this one. Rory Jacob was about four inches away from beating them in an epic Leinster quarter-final in 2009 but the Kilkenny side came through after extra-time. This one will see probably the best defence in the competition up against arguably the best attack. If Oulart can get the upper hand, they might never see a better chance of a provincial title.

“Fingers crossed.I’d love to see it for them. There’s a few of them on the wrong side of 30 and they’re coming down with county medals. Darren Stamp, Keith Rossiter, Mick Jacob, all these lads. This is something they would give anything to win,” says Herbert.

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