O’Loughlin Gaels picked up their second provincial title (they won their first in 2003) after a workmanlike performance, but, not for the first time where a Kilkenny team is concerned, it was due as much to mental strength as hurling prowess.
From first whistle almost to last it was the skilful and speedy Wexford champions Oulart-The-Ballagh looking the more likely winners, but ultimately the Gaels just toughed it out to beat a team that looked to be marginally more talented.
Oulart had edged the first half, led by a point at the break (1-4 to 0-6) but it should have been more, Rory Jacob blasting wide a penalty he had won himself just before half-time.
Oulart got over that, however, and ten minutes into the second half they had extended their lead to four points, and were looking the team most likely. Again, however, they failed to drive home their advantage.
Through all this the Gaels never panicked, they simply regrouped, reorganised their team, and kept coming. Star forward and captain Martin Comerford was getting no change inside from a tight-marking Oulart full-back line in which county men Keith Rossiter and Paul Roche were outstanding, so he was switched outside.
Seamie Cummins was sprung from the bench to take Martin’s place inside and made a huge difference. Finally, the Gaels’ forwards began to click.
Another major difference in the final ten minutes was the sending-off of Oulart wing-back Lar Prendergast for a rash retaliatory pull, after Wexford had won a free.
Most galling from an Oulart point of view, Lar had been hurling really well. But now, entering the end-game, scores evenly balanced, it was curtains for the Wexford champions. They didn’t beat themselves, but they certainly helped.
“Exhausted!” Gaels’ Brian Hogan pronounced himself.
“It was always going to be a tough game. Oulart-The-Ballagh have a fantastic pedigree behind them and we were well aware of that. They set their stall out early, they wanted to win this, the Leinster title, and then to go even further.”
Wanting isn’t enough against any Kilkenny team, however; you have to believe, you have to take advantage of every break, and you have to drive to the finish. On most of those counts, unfortunately, Oulart-The-Ballagh were found wanting, and no-one will know better than themselves that this was a game they should have won.
Hurling crisply, defending superbly, they had really looked the part in the first half. The returning Darren Stamp lorded matters at centre-back, the inside line of defence were giving nothing away, so the Gaels were largely dependent on free-taker Mark Bergin for their scores. Mark duly obliged, notched four of O’Loughlin’s six first half points, three from placed balls.
In contrast, Oulart looked very threatening, in the inside line especially where Rory Jacob had Eddie Kearns in trouble early on and scored the game’s only goal in the 5th minute after stealing in behind the defence.
Full-forward Gary Sinnott too was causing problems for Andy Kearns and struck two fine early points. An injury to Andy in the 15th minute, however, saw Brian Hogan drop back, where he proceeded to snuff out the challenge of Sinnott. Rory, however, continued to cause problems, but that penalty was an opportunity lost.
A superb hat-trick of long-range points early in the second half from David Redmond put Oulart back in the driving-seat, but again, they didn’t drive home that advantage. Another Mark Bergin pointed free saw the Gaels take off on a five-point spree (two from Martin Comerford, now in the half-forward line) and into a one-point lead.
Now we were into the decisive period of the game, but Oulart were down to 14, and it was the Gaels who powered home.
“You never feel you’re on the road to victory against a Kilkenny team,” said Oulart manager Liam Dunne.
“When you’re on the road home after the final whistle and you’ve won, maybe then.”
Scorers for O’Loughlin Gaels: M Bergin 0-6 (0-5 frees); N McEvoy 0-2; M Comerford 0-2; S Cummins 0-2; P Dowling, B Dowling, 0-1 each.
Scorers for Oulart The Ballagh: R Jacob 1-0; D Redmond 0-3; G Sinnott 0-2; N Kirwan 0-2 (frees); E Moore 0-1 (free).
Subs for O’Loughlin Gaels: B Murphy for A Kearns (inj. 15); S Cummins for Loughnane (49). Blood sub – S Cummins for P Dowling (44/45).
Subs for Oulart-The-Ballagh): D Mythen for Nolan (48).
Referee: T Carroll (Offaly).