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St Martin’s making the most of their considerable talents

Wexford’s new hurling champions aiming to complete rare double in county football final

Rory O’Connor: Wexford’s promising 19-year-old was in exceptional form during St Martin’s triumphant run to the county senior hurling title. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

It has been trapeze-act stuff as summer turned to autumn and that’s fine with them. October is the month when the county championships go into overdrive and every so often, marvellous stories come screaming out of the dusk.

This year, the deeds of St Martin’s, a country club on the edge of Wexford town, caught the ear and the eye. After a nine year absence, they surprised Oulart-the-Ballagh (Wexford royalty) with a magisterial display in last Sunday’s county hurling final. On Sunday, they battle against the unbeatably-named Starlights in the football final.

Thirteen of the players who started in the hurling final are likely to be start Sunday’s match also unless Rory O’Connor proves unable to start because of a knee injury.

Like Slaughtneil’s double-act last winter up in Derry, making it this far in both sports has required exceptional improvisation by the Wexford men.

“We have kind of got used to it now as this is our 14th week in a row alternating from one to the other,” says manager Tomás Codd.

“Football-hurling every second week. We were also lucky enough to win an U-21 hurling championship so the younger guys in our squad have played about 20 knockout games in 14 weeks. Last week, we haven’t won a hurling championship in a while and we are traditionally a hurling club. So to be honest we celebrated on Sunday night.

“We had to be fair to supporters and people with us along the way. We went to the clubhouse and got a bit of food and mingled with the people in the parish. We parked it up then and haven’t done much since. We meet tonight [Wednesday] for training but we haven’t done any training worth talking about in that period. We trained one night between the Sundays in Carlow because lads are working and are at college up there.”

Anyone with even a passing interest in Gaelic games knows that the glory of the summer All-Ireland championships comes at the cost of compressing and rushing the championships of the many club teams whose athletes and mentors put in almost as much effort. Codd is one of the managers trying to navigate a path through a club system that mixes prolonged periods of vexing inactivity with times like now, when the big games come at teams in a furiously intense burst.

He was a selector with Liam Dunne during his reign with the Wexford hurlers and agreed to take on the senior club position on one condition: that he could take charge of both the hurling and football team.

St Martin’s may be a hurling club first and foremost but he knew many of the senior players were also serious and ambitious about football. The club had won its first ever senior football championship in 2013. So what Codd wanted to avoid was taking charge of the hurling team and finding himself at loggerheads with the football manager.

Big workload

“It wasn’t a control thing but we have two senior teams and the standard is quite high. But when you have two, managers maybe won’t make allowances for what you have done in the hurling and vice versa and it ends up with crocks and players losing the appetite for it.

“It was obviously a big workload but I have seen it happen in a lot of clubs where two managers spend the whole season fighting and players take sides and all of a sudden you have a divide and you achieve nothing. We noticed that when we got to the knockout stages six weeks ago our performances started to dip. We trawled through and looked at the key performance indicators and took a chance and said we were doing too much.

“We went from two nights training to one. And it worked. We saved one of our best performances for the hurling final. It was a high-wire strategy because we did one hurling session in the lead up to the final. Literally one hour. And it will be the same now with the football.”

Tomás Codd, right, with former Wexford boss Liam Dunne. “Unless the GAA gets control back nothing like that [dual intercounty players] can happen ever again. It is all about Sky and RTÉ: they decide when matches are played.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

All over Ireland, there are clubs hell-bent on winning a county championship in just one sport. It defies logic that effectively the same group of players can excel at both.

For Codd, this has been a process of trial and error. In 2015 they lost two finals with a very young team. In last year’s hurling semi-final they were two points up after six minutes of injury time and got hit with a goal. They were still reeling from that when they crashed out of the football semi-final a week later.

Last December, they met to talk about what they wanted out of this year.

“We tried to tear away the debris. There was some frank talking and we put a plan in place.”

They decided they wanted to shoot for both championships. Their first training session was on January 14th and they are still at it. But that is only part of their story. John O’Connor, who is on Codd’s management team, chaired the youth branch of the club which made a rigorous attempt to introduce quality coaching for all under age teams from six up.

“We were trying to get them technically as complete as we could,” Codd explains. “And it was a matter of them growing themselves and becoming good players themselves.”

The bad news for other Wexford teams is that St Martin’s is crowded with young players. Twelve of their senior side are still U-21. A further five are minor.

Rory O’Connor has been conspicuous in his solo exploits through their autumn run. In the quarter-final against Buffers Alley, the hurling team appeared lost until O’Connor reeled off six crucial scores in a row. They won by a point.

Bandaged knee

Then in the semi-final, he hit Gorey for 2-7 and was sensational in the final despite playing with a heavily bandaged knee that may yet rule him out of the football decider. O’Connor played with huge freedom and confidence when give a senior championship start by Davy Fitzgerald in the championship. It means he is even more closely scrutinised at club level. Codd coached O’Connor as a boy and retains vivid memories of a special turn he gave at an U-10 tournament in Wexford town.

“Rory was always really, really good but he has become better since he went into adult teams

“Rory was always really, really good but he has become better since he went into adult teams. He became special. And he is still only 19 and is going to be going out now with Wexford marking some of the best hurlers in the country. He is probably going to hit a wall at some stage but he has been fantastic for us.”

When and if St Martin’s hit a wall is something that only time will tell. But regardless of the outcome on Sunday, they have become one of those fabulous GAA winter stories.

And like all dual clubs, they are a valuable reminder that players excelling in both sports is something to be valued and preserved. The dual player has all but disappeared at inter-county level for the very reason that prompted Codd to take both managerial positions at his club. Managers are loathe to share the time of their players. But, as O’Connor sees it, the current club and county structure leaves the chances of players thriving in both sports increasingly slim regardless of the willingness of managers.

“In the current environment in the GAA there would need to be a major shift at corporate level for anything like this to work because the money men have control of the association. Unless the GAA gets control back nothing like that can happen ever again. It is all about Sky and RTÉ: they decide when matches are played.

“They are saying now the month of April will be for clubs but obviously whoever was on the committee that decided that never sat in an inter-county dressing room in their lives because if you are Davy Fitzgerald and you are told you can’t have players in April but will play championship in May, it is not going to happen. When they think they are fixing it they will make it worse.”

But that’s not something he has time to dwell on just now. On Wednesday, St Martin’s met for a light training session. It was their first time to kick a football around together for two weeks. On Sunday, they will go chase a county championship.

Busy times.