Higgins: we believe we can win

ASK Wexford senior hurling captain Nigel Higgins which he’d prefer to win, a Grand National as a jockey or an All-Ireland senior hurling medal, and he pauses, flummoxed.

“Oh now,” groans the former point-to-point jockey, “Oh now! Individually a Grand National, but in a team event, an All-Ireland.”

Like the renowned Wexford trainer Jim Bolger, Nigel has a love for horses and a love for hurling, a love which, because one is as demanding of time as the other, often sees him in turmoil.

Throw in all his other business interests, and the wonder is that Nigel gets any time at all for himself.

“We have three or four different businesses,” he explained this week, in the lead-up to Sunday’s Leinster senior final against Kilkenny, in Croke Park.

“There is a haulage business, a retail business, an import business, and we have a stud farm as well. From here, I’m heading to the Derby sales out in Tattersall’s.”

Four businesses on the go, how does he manage? Could he, perhaps, map out a typical day for us, his nine-to-five routine?

“Nine to five?” he laughs, “I’d love to see one of those days! I haven’t seen one for a long, long time. This week now, for the sales, you’re talking about starting at half-four/five o’clock in the morning with a half-nine/ten o’clock finish and getting something to eat then after that.”

Can you imagine any of our top rugby or soccer players on that kind of a schedule, coming up to the week of a major game? It must have an adverse affect on the body.

“Probably when I started first, yeah, but at this stage I’m used to it, I can re-jig my body to work around it. I’ll still be well rested come Sunday.”

It all sounds ultra-demanding, and it undoubtedly is, but then again Nigel is well used to hard discipline. In his riding days, the three or four years he spent trying to make it over fences in England, he rode at just over nine stone. That’s more than three stone less than what he will weigh when he togs out Sunday, and believe me, he’s still not carrying any excess poundage in that.

Mind you, it did all become too much for him a couple of years ago. In 2005, after one championship match, he quit the panel. He had enough. But he missed it, the buzz, the challenge and the whole circus that is the senior inter-county hurling championship. A few months ago, after Wexford had suffered yet another hiding at the hands of Sunday’s opponents, Kilkenny, in the NHL semi-final, new manager John Meyler came calling. Nigel couldn’t say no.

“I had a lot of work commitments in 2005 and still have, but I’m now trying to fit it all in somewhere along the line. I re-jigged things at work, got help from family and friends at home that gives me a little bit more time to put in with Wexford. I was delighted to get back in there, to get a Wexford jersey back on my back.”

Did he have to think about it, or was it an instant decision?

“I won’t say I decided straight away but after talking to family and friends, different people who helped me out, it gave me that bit of extra time to allow me go back to training in the evenings, so I said yeah, let’s go for it.

“It’s any hurler’s dream to get to Croke Park, that’s where the hurling is played, that’s where every hurler wants to hurl.

“It is a big crowd, big stage, great pitch – if you can’t hurl there, where do you go?”

Going back to that league semi-final hammering, however, having gone reasonably well in the league, having beaten Galway the previous week, that defeat was a huge setback to John Meyler and to Wexford.

Realistically, if you were a bookie for example, what odds would you be giving Wexford?

“Well I’ve never yet seen a bookmaker go home on a push-bike!” he laughs. Those same astute individuals, however, have Wexford at 15/2, Kilkenny at 16/1-on to retain Leinster, win their ninth title in ten years.

“It doesn’t augur well, does it?

“We’re not going to Croke Park for the good of our health,” he states; “We’re going up there to win, we’re going up there to give Kilkenny all they want of it. With the double-header this week, the footballers there as well, hopefully we’ll have great support, worth four or five points to us coming towards the end of the game.”

In their semi-final win over Dublin, Wexford got the ideal start — Nigel got a goal within four minutes putting them 1-3 to 0-1 ahead after nine minutes. As it turned out, however, Wexford had to rely on a controversial late injury-time free converted by substitute Barry Lambert.

Had that been Kilkenny racing into an early lead, they would most likely have gone on to pulverise Dublin – that’s their nature. Wexford can’t afford to let that happen on Sunday.

“Kilkenny go out to win. They get a couple of points ahead of you, they don’t stop there, they go ahead and then put you away. I can’t fault any team for that – if you’re that good, go ahead and win. Kilkenny are Kilkenny, even if you get a headstart on them, they always seem to come back at you.

“They never say die, they’re always there or thereabouts. They’re red-hot favourites for the Leinster final, probably the favourites for the All-Ireland title. It’s a huge task for us. To come out with a victory would be spectacular.” Can they come out with that victory? Can they defy those odds, send those bookies (figuratively speaking) home on their bikes?

“Obviously we’re going to have to up our semi-final performance 100% to even be there or thereabouts with Kilkenny.

“But if you don’t believe, there’s no point in going up – you have to have self-belief, you have to have self-confidence.”

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