Oulart-The Ballagh bid to end Leinster bogey
They may be playing in their fifth final in six years, but the hunger for that elusive provincial title remains as Oulart-The Ballagh set themselves up for an AIB Leinster Club Senior hurling championship final clash with Dublin champions, Cuala, at Netwatch Cullen Park, Carlow, on Sunday.
Last year the Wexford champions paid the price of so many seasons at the helm of Model county hurling when they were sensationally knocked out in the quarter-final by Glynn-Barntown through an additional time goal. But it's a hallmark of their commitment and spirit, no doubt fashioned under Oulart Hill, that they returned this year to regain their county crown and their fifth title in six years, a truly remarkable record.
So it's not a bad place to be, a provincial final in November, and just 60 minutes away from winning their first-ever provincial title. This group of players have kept on going and introduced some new faces, and while they may not be playing with the same verve as in previous years, they are performing to a system laid down by manager Frank Flannery, which has made them even more difficult to defeat.
In other words, Oulart-The Ballagh are playing to their current strengths, bedding in the new players while handing key roles to their more experienced men, which has been key to their unbeaten championship run this year.
Playing with an extra man in the half-back line, coinciding with a rejuvenated Rory Jacob now handed a free roving role in midfield alongside David Redmond, they have set themselves up in such a fashion that they are winning games with even modest returns.
Basically this could be seen as a defensive game, but at the end of the day it will all come down to scores, which must be a source of concern to Flannery and his backroom team.
There is every confidence in the defence and midfield, but it's the attack that's a source of worry as, while doing invaluable work in general play, their scoring ratio has not yet matched their outfield possession. It all adds up to the fact that it's the Oulart-The Ballagh attack that must step up to the mark if they are to lift that first provincial title.
For Oulart-The Ballagh to win out they must add some flair to their huge workrate, so it would not be surprising to see some tinkering with individual positioning to achieve this. Frank Flannery has been through enough easy games this year, with the side yet to meet a severe test, but he is experienced enough to realise that this is just about to arrive, so with the stakes raised, he will be demanding a huge effort from his side and substitutes.
Nothing else will suffice against a Cuala side which has been hugely impressive through their domestic championship, while they have come up trumps against both the Offaly and Kilkenny champions, Coolderry and Clara, to reach this stage. That is the type of challenge facing the Wexford champions.
Oulart-The Ballagh are gunning for the big prize. The club's current success story has still left a vacancy in the hope that their efforts and commitment will deliver that long-awaited provincial crown.
Credit to Frank Flannery for the manner in which he revitalised the side after last year's disappointment. It must have taken a huge effort to get this particular group of players back to this level, having played at the top echelons of the game for so long. It has been a success story so far but it will only get the credit it deserves should they lift their first-ever provincial crown at the fifth time of asking with this current crop.
The introduction of Frank Flannery at the helm has brought a whole new steel to the team. Their hurling skills have improved and they are playing to a system, with the defence now more solid than ever.
Midfield is delivering, and while some question marks still surround the attack, they deserve credit all the same for delivering the match-winning scores throughout the season.
Now, there is no better time for the attack to bring out that extra-special performance against a Cuala defence that looks somewhat suspect under pressure, particularly without the services of Dublin regular Paul Schutte who underwent a shoulder operation some weeks ago.
The variation in Oulart-The Ballagh's game is what has caught most teams by surprise. Keith Rossiter has been handed the tag of extra man in defence, a role he is playing to perfection as he cleans up in front of goal, and with Conor O'Leary yet to concede a goal, this duo will prove a real stumbling block to the goal-hungry Cuala attack.
Centre-back Shaun Murphy has been his side's outstanding defender, while the experienced Paul Roche has returned to form at the opportune time. Along with Eoin Moore, team captain Barry Kehoe and Under-21 player, Kevin Sheridan, they have proven the most formidable defensive set-up in the campaign to date.
While midfielders David Redmond and Rory Jacob will have a real job to do, they are not alone capable of holding their own, but also allowing Redmond to make those trademark runs at the defence which could prove crucial in creating the space for those vital scores.
It will not alone be about getting a performance from Redmond in the midfield duel but also in utilising his ability to get forward for scores and possibly that run and goal that is so much part of his game.
Manager Flannery will this week be giving much thought to the composition of his attack. It has been the subject of much change in each game, but it's the final composition of the half-forward line that could dictate the side's chances of victory.
It's difficult to see the formation that he will eventually arrive at, but whatever it is, much will still depend on players like Des Mythen, Nicky Kirwan and Garrett Sinnott to provide the leadership to the less experienced players around them.
Oulart-The Ballagh will not be going there just to put in a huge performance. They are definitely going there to win.
You only have to look at the quality they have, and compare this with the quality in the Cuala side which has potential match-winners up front in David Treacy, Mark Schutte and Colm Cronin to suddenly realise the challenge ahead of them.
It will be explosive from the start. Should the Oulart-The Ballagh defence lay down their early markers on this trio up front, then they are capable of fashioning out a victory, but it will be mighty tough through the 60 minutes.