Bolger's boys dream big
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown one step from Leinster title
The last team standing in the AIB Leinster Club championships will carry the good wishes of the entire county for their journey into the lions' den on Saturday.
Rathgarogue-Cushinstown have made enormous strides over the past 14 months, and now the hours are counting down to the biggest occasion in their proud history as they will take on Clann na nGael from Meath in the Junior football decider in Páirc Tailteann, Navan, at 1.30 p.m.
It was a long, frustrating road back to happier times for the New Ross District side after their relegation from the Intermediate ranks in 2005.
Indeed, there must have been stages when they wondered if they would ever make a return, because their string of disappointments included defeats in the Junior finals of 2014 to Crossabeg-Ballymurn, after a replay, and 2017 to the St. Martin's second string.
Both losses were by two-point margins, but they have been on an incredible roll since they made it over the line in Bellefield on October 20 last year, overcoming Monageer-Boolavogue by the same small gap (0-13 to 1-8).
Manager James Bolger has made it his mission to bring success to this promising young group of players, having featured himself as a veteran attacker in that county final loss five years ago.
And while consolidation would be the main aim for most clubs in their first season playing in a higher grade, Rathgarogue-Cushinstown weren't willing to settle for that.
A one-point win over Kilanerin in the All-County League Division 3 final was a welcome mid-summer boost, but their championship hopes were looking precarious at the time after two losses from their first three outings, against Volunteers and Kilmore respectively.
In between, they had defeated St. Martin's to make some amends for 2017, but the point they secured in an 0-11 each draw with neighbours Adamstown on August 3 marked a huge upturn in fortunes.
In fact, they have won all seven games played since, starting with a 4-22 to 0-7 hammering of Craanford in their final group encounter.
Cloughbawn, the previous year's runners-up, were dismissed with similar ease in the quarter-final (4-16 to 1-3), but it was more difficult in the penultimate round when they beat Kilmore by four points, less than two months after losing to the same opponents by four goals.
That underlined the improvements made as the campaign entered the critical stages, and new heights were reached with a wonderful attacking display on county final day in New Ross when another neighbouring club, Clongeen, were brushed aside by 5-9 to 2-9.
With two titles secured in twelve months, and the team clearly on a roll, manager Bolger and his fellow mentors - John Michael Porter, ex-Kilanerin attacker Donie Noonan, and Barry Murphy - recognised that this was an opportunity too good to ignore, and they wasted little time in knuckling down for the club's first-ever venture into an AIB Leinster football championship.
And it has brought rich rewards thus far, with Kilkenny Intermediate victors Mooncoin overcome by 1-14 to 1-9 in Dr. Tierney Park, Graiguenamanagh, before the team returned to their happy hunting ground of O'Kennedy Park for two more successful outings.
Wins for Wexford football teams over Dublin opponents are few and far between, so the potential of this Rathgarogue-Cushinstown side became clear after they knocked out Craobh Chiaráin from Donnycarney by 0-11 to 0-6.
And a Shannonbridge team looking forward to playing in the Senior 'B' grade in Offaly next year were their semi-final victims on a 1-8 to 0-7 scoreline, with a goal from Daire Bolger - son of manager James - making all the difference.
Now Rathgarogue-Cushinstown are hoping to go one better than St. Fintan's and Kilmore - the county's previous Leinster finalists at this level - by bringing this hard-won title home.
If they return triumphant from Navan on Saturday, they will be only the second Wexford club to collect a provincial football crown, joining Kilanerin who defeated Ballyboughal from Dublin in the Intermediate final of 2017.
This competition was a tournament rather than a championship in 1999 when St. Fintan's first made it to the decider in its fourth year, losing to the Clara second string from Offaly on their home patch of Ballymore by 0-10 to 0-9.
Four years later, near neighbours Kilmore played host to Wolfe Tones from Kilberry in the sole Wexford-Meath final prior to next Saturday, with the Cian Ward-inspired visitors winning by 1-10 to 0-6.
St. Fintan's were back on the big stage in 2012, travelling to Parnell Park where a youthful Ciarán Kilkenny was a key cog in the Castleknock wheel as the Dubliners triumphed on a 1-10 to 1-5 scoreline.
On Saturday, Rathgarogue-Cushinstown will face a club with a Leinster title at this level already on the honours list, because Clann na nGael defeated Rosemount from Westmeath by 0-15 to 1-6 in the 2007 final.
That was the first in a sequence of five wins on the trot for the Meath representatives, although their opponents are very young and only two likely starters - captain Darren Kelly and corner-forward Michael Priest - were involved on that winning squad twelve years ago.
Clann na nGael was founded as recently as December 8, 2002, as a result of the amalgamation of two existing clubs within a parish: Athboy and Rath Cairn, from the county's Gaeltacht area.
Trainer Tom Hanley is a former Athboy and Meath defender who also played in that 2007 Leinster final win, and the club went on to contest the county Intermediate decider in 2013 when they were defeated by Gaeil Colmcille from Kells.
Clann na nGael compete annually in Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, and one of their best-known players is wing-forward Eamonn Ó Donnachada who has won a Christy Ring Cup hurling medal with Meath.
Teenage goalkeeper Eoin Griffin is a Leinster Minor football medal holder, and he was one of seven players aged 19 or younger to feature in their county final victory against Moylagh.
They then saw off Ballynacargy from Westmeath in Lakepoint Park, Mullingar, by 3-8 to 1-9 before pipping Ballymore Eustace from Kildare in the semi-final in Trim by 2-8 to 1-10.
The Cody clan, comprising three brothers plus their first cousin, will be driving the Rathgarogue-Cushinstown challenge, with team captain Matthew, Tadhg, Peadar and Bryan set to receive plenty of support from county Senior Eoin Porter, Brian O'Neill, Daniel Martin-Carroll, Bernard Furlong and company.
If the breaks go their way and they settle quickly, it could be a day that these players will remember for the rest of their lives.