OULART-THE BALLAGH may have raised expectations in the past but make no mistake about it - this is their most crucial game during their period of local hurling dominance when they clash with the mighty Ballyhale Shamrocks in this eagerly-anticipated AIB Leinster Club Senior hurling championship semi-final at Wexford Park on Sunday next.
It's a must-win game for Pat Herbert's men in their bid to progress one step further in search of that elusive provincial crown. A defeat could even lead to their dominance of Wexford hurling in the coming year being eroded, as having put four county titles back-to-back, their solitary goal at this stage must at least be the provincial title. Anything less would be a disaster, as over the past three years the Wexford side has let provincial titles slip away in most disappointing circumstances.
Despite everything they have continued to bounce back on the domestic scene, although it must be said that they struggled on occasions this year, as they at no stage played with the fluency that marked their three previous county title successes. But still one would have to give them credit for the manner in which they knuckled down when Kilmacud Crokes looked in a position to snatch the game from them, bouncing back with a late winning point. There was no sign of panicking and they should have emerged from this game a stronger outfit.
In Ballyhale Shamrocks they are meeting a side that won both provincial and All-Ireland Club titles, and a side that contains one of the game's greatest hurlers, Henry Shefflin, who will also have such players as Colin and Michael Fennelly to backbone their challenge. They have come through a tough few months, having played their part in the county's All-Ireland success, and then being hit with a backlog of club games, but along the way they showed they are still ready for an assault on the club title.
Oulart-The Ballagh will take a deal of heart from the manner in which they dug deep to dismiss the Dublin champions in Parnell Park and in the fact that they will have home advantage for the task that lies ahead. But they will need fire in the bellies to go with their undoubted hurling skills if they are to overcome this highly-rated Ballyhale Shamrocks side.
One can talk about records, but if it came down to that Ballyhale Shamrocks would be the stand-out side on the club scene, going hand in hand with their contribution to that great Kilkenny side. So Oulart-The Ballagh will have to raise the bar if they are to secure a final spot, but they still have every chance of overcoming their much-vaunted opponents.
Oulart-The Ballagh are still likely to be without wing-back Lar Prendergast who is struggling with an ankle ligament injury that forced him to miss the quarter-final, and it looks as if this will also be a game too early for the resolute defender.
In the absence of Prendergast this is likely to lead to both of their young up-and-coming players, Conor Goff and Conor O'Leary, remaining very much in contention for starting positions, both having figured prominently against the Dublin champions. It's also likely that Shaun Murphy will come very much back into contention for a starting spot, having sat out the victory in Parnell Park.
If Oulart-The Ballagh are going to win this game they must edge the contest involving their half-back line and the visitors' half-forwards from where most of their attacking play emerges. Oulart-The Ballagh will be very much looking to Darren Stamp to shore up the centre of defence along with full-back Keith Rossiter. The outcome could very much hinge on their respective displays as anything but a dominant centre could see them in serious trouble.
With a dominant Stamp it liberates midfielder David Redmond to play with a little more freedom and gusto. Midfield will be crucial so Redmond will need all the support possible if he is to win his share of possession in this sector.
It remains to be seen if the Wexford champions will persevere with the playing of Paul Roche at centre-forward. Having come into the role in the county final when introduced at halftime to curb the up to then dominant Richie Kehoe, Roche was retained in the post for the Kilmacud Crokes victory where he exerted a certain amount of influence.
But it's the attacking formation that has been troubling the Oulart-The Ballagh backroom team most. They have yet to play as a unit, with Garrett Sinnott looking out of sorts in a wingforward role.
Many feel he could be of greater benefit on the fringe of the square, with Shaun Murphy being handed the No. 12 jersey, which would bring more pace to the half-forward line, while Sinnott would carry a huge scoring threat inside.
Oulart-The Ballagh will also be looking to inside forwards Rory Jacob and Nicky Kirwan to be driven in seeking scores which would be a huge bonus. Jacob, in particular, can be a match-winner, and given his experience and skill close to goal, he has the ability to boost his side on the scoreboard.
Oulart-The Ballagh will in no way be fazed by the challenge that Ballyhale Shamrocks will bring to the game. It's going to be a huge challenge but one they are capable of coping with and advancing to a final meeting with Kilcormac-Killoughey from Offaly.