Oulart The Ballagh are still the favourites but they face a surprise packet in Naomh Eanna
As the knock-out stages arrive Oulart-the-Ballagh are getting ready to brew up another storm in this year's Wexford Pettitt's Senior hurling championship. Success is all about getting back to basics and this is what the reigning champions have managed to achieve having won their first ever provincial club title last season, and going ever so close to defeating eventual All-Ireland champions, Na Piarsaigh, taking the Limerick champions to extra time.
The reigning champions are not for taking a backward step having gone through the group stages with a one hundred per cent record. They needed to stand up in those earlier games if for nothing else but to demonstrate there was no baggage being carried forward following that All-Ireland semi-final disappointment.
In those game they were forced into bringing in some younger players, being short of some key personnel through injury, but their arrival has been greeted, so much so, they have given the side a new-found strength in depth once their injury stricken players return.
After the opening rounds of the championship, it was striking to see the appetite remain with the players, given their stay at the helm of Wexford hurling over the past ten years, there was a new found edge to their play, strong in defence, eloquent in attack, but still with questions regarding midfield, that will no doubt be rectified with the return of David Redmond and Eoin Moore, while Shaun Murphy slotted back into centre-back in their facile win over Rathnure, as if he was never away, having put five injury ravaged months behind him.,
Five games on, improving with each game, manager Frank Flannery, saw to it that there was never going to be panic, even through the injury crisis. Flannery knows all about struggles, so it was incumbent on him to demonstrate a confidence in his squad, and his massive presence has even grown over those months, a confidence that he has embedded in his players.
So by the end of the summer, Oulart-the-Ballagh are everyone's favourites to retain their title, but they have still that quarter-final with surprise packets, Naomh Eanna, to overcome. This year, Cloughbawn apart, Oualrt-the-Ballagh have not been threatened. Generally speaking they will be odds on favourites going into this game but Flannery will still have his charges primed, they will be taking nothing for granted. Another guy could be looking further ahead but not Flannery and that is one of the reasons why Oulart-the-Ballagh are remaining at the forefront of Wexford hurling.
While Flannery is keeping his players right on the edge, he knows that reputations count for nothing, the title race is still not limited to a one-horse race, for there are some interesting sides through to the quarter-final stages, which should whet the appetite of hurling followers.
One vividly remembers St. Martin's shocking the Oulart-the-Ballagh boys in the past. This is a young side on the brink of making a breakthrough in senior hurling, for it's a side with an abundance of talent and skill level of a high order. When you flick back through the championship they are the one side capable of putting a new name on the Dr. Bob Bowe Cup, particularly after their excellent bid to lift the Premier Under-21 hurling crown.
The talk will be relentless over the coming weeks as to whether their bid to lift the Senior football title, they are through to the semi-final having dethroned reigning champions, St. James', the very side that denied them the title in last year's final, will impact on their hurling bid.
This is a story that will be shrouded with doubts but I firmly believe they have the players and back-up team to cope with the demands which will be quite staggering over the coming weeks. They are without doubt the 'Club of the Year' even at this early stage given their impact on adult/under-age hurling and football in the county. They have a stream of talented players coming through the system, and where best to display this than on the big occasion.
The scene is now set for the quarter-final stages. There will be surprises along the way with Cloughbawn the more likely side to produce a shock or two.
St. James' bid to retain their Senior football title, won for the first time last year, came unstuck against the very side they defeated in last year's final, St. Martin's, who are now installed as title favourites. But with Castletown, Glynn-Barntown and Gusserane also through, two very interesting semi-finals are in the making.
For the men in black the weekend championship games went off without any real controversy. In the Gorey District Under-21 football semi-final, Davy Owens, controlled the game with little fuss, getting 3 out of 5, while on Saturday afternoon, Eric Molloy made the huge call of having a penalty retaken, after the goalie moved off his line and saved. The retake was sent wide. A good day for the St. James;' man, 3 out of 5. Up-and-coming young referee, John O'Loughlin, gave another impressive display of whistling in the Duffry Rovers/Ger. O'Hanrahans IFC game showing great consistency in his calls 4 out 5. On Friday night in Gusserane, Derek Murphy kept the game flowing leaving him with 3 out of 5.