Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Wexford happy to put 2020 behind them

Davy Fitzgerald’s side saw their Leinster SHC title defence end meekly last year

Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Wexford meet Laois this weekend. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Diarmuid O’Keeffe and Wexford meet Laois this weekend. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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Diarmuid O’Keeffe coldly describes it as a tame an effort by anyone to defend a Leinster hurling title, and in truth he’s not far off. Not that the many lessons will have gone unheeded.

Having played some inspired and inspiring hurling to win the 2019 title, beating Kilkenny in the final, Wexford’s first provincial success since 2004 - they bowed out meekly in the pandemic winter championship, losing to Galway in Leinster by 13 points, then to Clare by seven in their qualifier. Season over within a dark fortnight.

“We just didn’t perform, two flat and stale performances,” said O’Keeffe, who also ended that triumphant 2019 season with a first All Star at midfield. “The standout thing is we probably anticipated games coming back sooner than that they did, so we were trying to keep out fitness levels up during the lockdown, probably a little bit earlier than other teams had.

“As a result when games did come back, we were greeted with club championship first, and some of the lads reckon they probably had a better club campaign than a county campaign, and hit form earlier in the season than when the Galway and Clare games came around. So the phrase ‘front-loaded’ is probably appropriate, we just anticipated games coming back sooner, and probably pushed a little bit too hard at the beginning.”

So to the lessons: once manager Davy Fitzgerald recommitted (within a matter of hours) for a fifth season, the first instruction was to clear the heads with a proper break. Still, no one expected that break to last as long as it did.

“Yeah, the year had dragged on so much, and the immediate thing was to get a break. Davy played his heart well that way, in that after a couple of hours, he was already 100 per cent committed to 2021. That was it, we knew where we stood, take the break and let’s kick off again.

“So you’re trying to get back into that mindset of challenging yourself again, like 2019, trying to dig in that way. On a personal level, you just want to forget your performances, they were so low par. I expect so much more from myself, and I know the lads to again, to rise above that and come good again this year.”

Beginning on Sunday, O’Keeffe speaking at the launch of the 2021 Allianz Hurling Leagues: over 70 games will take place across the four divisions in a packed seven-week festival of hurling, also marking the 29th year of Allianz’ partnership with the GAA.

Wexford host Laois on Sunday, and there’s no time to lose in every sense: “Absolutely, momentum is everything in this game, especially for us. There’s such a short gap now between league and championship you want to do that in the right manner.”

O’Keeffe also sees “pros and cons” to the reduced three-week training window before the return to competitive matches though he’s certainly eager to get going.

“The ratio of training to matches is still too great, and we’d enough solo training in March and April, though going from training on your own, to full contact, for me personally I’m okay, but I knew a few lads in the squad have picked up some injuries as a result.

“And there’s only so many 4km, 5km runs you can do. I was running around Wexford town, and got quite broken up at the time, pushing yourself the whole time is far from easy.”

With his club St Anne’s playing football and hurling, last year dragged on even longer: he played an intermediate football final well into October, when county hurling training was also back, though he does “personally” much prefer the split season in the county.

As a secondary school teacher, O’Keeffe also experienced firsthand some of the wider issues around the longer second lockdown:

“Initially I felt the key thing was structure in your day, and for me as a teacher, we followed the original timetable. The more it dragged on, it became very challenging, towards the end of it, to keep the kids motivated. It was far from straightforward.

“I’ve seen a change in the kids since they have come back to school, they’ve gone a lot quieter, it’s taking more time for them to come out of themselves. It will come back eventually, the more time they spend in school. It will take time.

“It’s also after coming out in the last few days, with the under-20s, there’s no concrete plan as to exactly when they’ll be back. I just know from my own club there’s a big focus and push on to try and make sure that all the kids that were there pre-lockdown come back and participate again, and that’s really, really important. It’s inevitable that people lose interest, and we’re trying to move it full circle again.”

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