They did it in Kilkenny too, in sunny Nowlan Park, and they did it in style, worthy and convincing winners.
Manager Liam Dunne was well pleased and rightly so.
“Of course I’m happy — you should see the lads in that dressing-room in there! We’ve had three years on this campaign, we’ve had James Stephens, Ballyhale and O’Loughlin Gaels — maybe this was just meant to happen. We always said if we could get a lucky break (we would win). We didn’t have them over the last few years, but we got one today just before half-time and it was probably the winning of the game.”
That break was the first Oulart goal, almost the last act of the first-half, and it was due mostly to the low, blinding winter sun. The Wexford champions were leading a tight game by two points (0-8 to 0-6), the teams having gone tit-for-tat to the 28th minute (Eoin Larkin with three, Niall Tyrell, Matthew Ruth and Eoin McCormack with one each for James Stephens. Nicky Kirwan had four for Oulart, Rory Jacob and Eoin Moore with the other two for the Wexford champions). But points from Moore and Darren Nolan seemed to have given them a slight advantage going into the second-half.
Then came that lucky break, that goal. A long-range free from 80m wide left was dropping at around crossbar level Wing-back Ray Coady on the Stephens’ line was temporarily blinded by the sun and instead of the ball dropping safely into his hand it was deflected into his net. In an instant a two-point lead became five, just what Liam Dunne — who has suffered more than his share of pain to Kilkenny teams over his long career — needed to see. Things quickly went from bad to worse for James Stephens. Within half a minute of the restart Oulart again had the ball in the Stephens’ net, the superb Moore blocking down Tomas Keogh then sending a ground shot past Derek Brennan.
From there it was an uphill struggle for the home side, and with the Oulart defensive sextet in superb form (Keith Rossiter and Darren Stamp sharing marking duties on James Stephens dangerman and captain Eoin Larkin as he alternated between centre and full-forward) the odds were against them. They tried heroically, Larkin notching a succession of frees to bring the margin down point by point, but the goal they so badly needednever came.
A Wexford team finally manning up to Kilkenny, in Kilkenny. This was a special day for Dunne
“We’re talking about that down in Wexford all our lives,” he admitted. “They’re the pinnacle of everything, it’s a massive achievement to come up here and win. Still, big a win as it was it’s still just a quarter-final, and given that James Stephens werewithout inspirational centre-back Jackie Tyrell, Dunne was keeping his feet very firmly planted.
“He was a massive loss to them — how does a club team replace a Jackie Tyrell? Also it was their third Sunday in a row (in action) and they still came back strong at us in the end. But that’s what they do. That’s why they’re the best hurlers in Ireland.”
Scorers for Oulart: E Moore 1-4 (0-1f); N Kirwan 0-4 (0-4f); S Murphy 1-0 (f); R Jacob 0-2; D Nolan, S Doyle, 0-1 each.
Scorers for James Stephens: E Larkin 0-11 (0-8f, 0-1 65); D McCormack, N Tyrell, M Ruth, E McCormack, 0-1 each.
OULART-THE BALLAGH: B O’Connor; A Kavanagh, K Rossiter (c), B Kehoe; S Murphy, D Stamp, L Prendergast; D Redmond, M Jacob; D Nolan, G Sinnott, F Cullen; E Moore, R Jacob, N Kirwan.
Subs: S Doyle (Kirwan 35); D Mythen (Cullen 56).
JAMES STEPHENS: D Brennan; J Comerford, T Keogh, N McQuillan; R Coady, D Cody, P Larkin; D McCormack, E Sheehy; N Tyrell, E Larkin (c), M Ruth; J McGrath, E McCormack, D Walton.
Subs: G Whelan (McGrath 30); C McQuillan (Tyrell 44); S Campion (E McCormack 62).
Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath).