A fitting finale
Cloughbawn were close in May tie
Published 15/10/2016 | 00:00
There could hardly be a more fitting Pettitt's Senior hurling championship final than one that pits the reigning Leinster champions against the side that gave them their toughest game this season.
Senior hurling championship final preview
Oulart-The Ballagh will take to the field in Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday (3.30 p.m.) looking for their tenth title in 13 years, knowing that Cloughbawn, seeking their fourth-ever crown, cannot be taken for granted.
The sides met back in early May, with Oulart-The Ballagh overturning a five-point interval deficit to eventually come out on top by just one point. Things may have changed since then but it seems that both sides have improved, not just the defending champions.
But some things have remained the same too. Garrett Sinnott was as influential in that comeback against Cloughbawn in the second game of the championship as he was in the semi-final win over Ferns St. Aidan's.
It's been a sensational season for the club captain and much of Cloughbawn's focus will go on attempting to stop Sinnott performing at the high level he has been hitting all summer long.
Sinnott assisted all four goals in the semi-final win over Ferns and his side have been using his physical power and silky touch to perfection all season. The champs have scored 18 goals in their seven games at an average of over two and a half a game, and he's a massive reason for that.
Nicky Kirwan is another big player that Oulart-The Ballagh lean on. In the past it was a double-edged sword, as if Kirwan didn't get you Rory Jacob would, but with the latter now dropping deeper to dictate the play, much of the goalscoring responsibility falls on Kirwan.
As a total of 6-45 in seven games might suggest, he hasn't shirked that responsibility. His partnership with Sinnott has allowed Oulart-The Ballagh to go long when the opportunity arises, not just in hope but with real results to back it up.
Any team that is averaging over 26 points a game, or scoring almost 21 times a game, has more than two forwards, and with Des Mythen, Peter Murphy, Rory Jacob, Tommy Storey, Billy Dunne, Martin Og Storey, Murtha Doyle and Ben O'Connor all available, Oulart-The Ballagh have plenty of competition for places.
The least the holders have scored this championship season is 3-12 (21 points) against Buffers Alley in April. The most they have conceded is 1-18 (21 points). The reason they are so hard to beat is that they do it at both ends of the field.
When will Keith Rossiter slow down? The man remains a colossus at full-back and it's telling that Oulart-The Ballagh are capable of going man-for-man and leaving him alone inside on a full-forward with confidence that the job will be done efficiently and effectively.
Maybe the wild card that was missing in the clash between the sides in the group stages is David Redmond. He has, simply put, been Wexford's most exciting hurler of the last decade.
Those darting runs from deep have lit up many a pitch and it was no surprise to see him back on the goalscoring sheet in the semi-final. If he is given the room he was allowed against Ferns it's going to be a long afternoon for the men from Castleboro.
And what of the underdogs? Until the semi-final win over Glynn-Barntown, Cloughbawn had been extremely consistent in scoring between 15 and 19 times a game. They fell short of that with just 13 waved flags against a Glynn-Barntown defence that has been miserly all season.
It's expected that, should they not freeze on the day, the attackers in green will go back in and around their average again. However, given the Oulart-The Ballagh scoring stats, to win this game P.J. Dempsey's men will likely need at least three of those scores to be goals.
That might prove to be a problem for a side which has managed just six in seven games, the same as Nicky Kirwan has for Oulart-The Ballagh on his own. Alan Carton and Paul Foley netted two of those goals each, while Harry Kehoe and Bob Whitty have one each.
Cloughbawn will need something special from those, or a coming-of-age performance from a talented youngster like Connal Flood, to get anywhere near the scores they will need to take victory.
Yet their defence has kept them in games. With just 9-95 allowed in their championship to date, Cloughbawn have a better defensive record than their opponents. Maybe their strongest performer in recent weeks has been Colm Kehoe at centre-back, and he will need to find the performance of his life on Sunday.
However, this game rests on the shoulders of Gavin Murphy, Tomás Furlong and M.J. Furlong in the full-back line. If they can keep Kirwan, Sinnott and co. at bay, they will have a chance to cause an upset.
So how is it going to go? Well, it would take a brave soul to pick against Oulart-The Ballagh but here are a couple of things to consider, if you believe that the county champions will have it all their own way.
Firstly, six of the seven Cloughbawn games this season have been decided by a goal or less. The one that wasn't was a four-point victory over Rathnure in their fourth round-robin game, so all season they have been involved in close games.
Secondly, in their last nine final wins, Oulart-The Ballagh have only really blown away their opponents twice, their eleven-point win against St. Martin's in 2010 and their 14-point success against Buffers Alley three years earlier.
That said, only one of those wins was by four points or less - the magic number for Cloughbawn this season. Their mean level of victory seems to be around five or six and that's smack-bang where the bookies are setting their handicap markets for this final.
Cloughbawn can do a little better than that. They will need a solid start, as they certainly don't want to be playing catch-up against this side.
If they can make a game of the first-half then maybe only two or three points will separate the sides, but Oulart-The Ballagh are the call to retain their title.