'You can only look forward in hurling — you can’t look back'
Paul Morris believes Wexford have stepped up this year and are ready for the next level
A few weeks ago FCJ Secondary School in Bunclody had a get-together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their historic All-Ireland 'B' colleges hurling title. There were two notable absentees. Paul Morris and Shane Tomkins, midfield and centre-forward on that team, were in lockdown, awaiting county duty the next day for Wexford against Laois in the Leinster quarter-finals. The celebrations went ahead without them but without them there would have been no All-Ireland.
In their electrifying win over Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final, Morris scored three points, finishing as their highest points scorer from play. Rory Kinsella, a selector when Wexford won the All-Ireland in 1996, managed the Bunclody school team of 2007 and has tracked his career every step of the way. "Sure look it, a very nice fella and an extremely skilful hurler," he says of Morris. "You could see from the time he came to the school that he was going to be a good one."
That quality has remained hidden from view outside Wexford for the most part. Morris has never hurled in the first tier of the National League since breaking into the senior county panel in 2010 and for the first five Leinster Championship the only team Wexford defeated was Antrim. That was not the kind of profile that gets you noticed.
As a minor, he scored the winning goal in the Leinster semi-final replay against Dublin in 2008 when Liam Dunne was manager. They lost the final to Kilkenny and went out in the All-Ireland quarter-final to a Galway team captained by David Burke. "It was a terrible day really," Morris recalls. "Galway went down to 13 men with ten minutes to go and we still managed to get beaten. It's a day we don't look back on with great memories."
Before that he was schooled on development squads, starting at 14, with other Wexford hurlers like Tomkins, Eoin Moore, Andrew Shore, Mark Fanning, Diarmuid O'Keeffe and Liam óg McGovern. But by the time he broke into the county senior panel at the start of the decade Dublin had overtaken Wexford in the queue to challenge Kilkenny. In his first National League appearance, as a late substitute, they lost to Carlow in 2010.
Colm Bonnar gave him his championship start as a replacement for Michael Jacob, in a heavy Leinster quarter-final loss to Galway later the same year. He focused on under 21 hurling in 2011 and didn't play for the senior team. Three years ago they floored the reigning All-Ireland champions Clare and put out Waterford with Morris man of the match, scoring 1-3 from play. But the following year Kilkenny beat them by 24 points in the Leinster semi-final in Nowlan Park. Wexford faded from view.
He did leave a mark though in 2014. In the drawn match against Clare in Ennis in 2014, his point near the end of extra-time earned a replay. He finished the first day with 0-10, including three from play. He chose to point a late penalty in normal time which stretched Wexford's lead to four points. It looked enough but Clare conjured an escape. On the second day he was hauled ashore after 42 minutes but extra-time offered him a shot at redemption. He profoundly influenced a grandstand finish with three vital scores.
"He had a huge impact," says Liam Dunne, by then his senior manager.
Morris hurls with St Aidan's in Ferns, where Wexford has its centre of excellence. The club is not a traditional high-flyer, having never won the Wexford senior championship. In 2013, it reached the county final for the first time since 1969, losing narrowly to Oulart-The Ballagh. Over the years they have moved between intermediate and senior grades.
"I would say he has developed big time under Liam Dunne and definitely this year he has got fitter and stronger," says Kinsella of Morris, who is 27. "He is in great nick. He is working extremely hard at things - people a few years ago would have been critical of him, saying he did not win the dirty ball. He is so skilful he will always get you three or four points but he is now working really hard, doing the hooking and the blocking, working back, adding a few strings to his bow."
Morris was only six when he attended the All-Ireland final in 1996 with his father Joe, who looks after the St Aidan's minor teams in both codes. "My dad is mad into hurling - a mad passionate man who does a lot of work with the local club and he brought me to games from when I was three or four years old. I remember small, small bits of it (the '96 final). I remember a few Limerick lads behind us and there was plenty of rowing going on between them and my father during the game."
He references Kinsella and Dunne as influences. Dunne had him at under 16, minor and then a further five years at senior. "He is one of 11 players that made it to senior from those (juvenile) teams," says Dunne. "Not a bad return I have to say."
This year has echoes of 2014 but differs in that they have won promotion and also defeated a major player in Leinster. That that major player was Kilkenny adds considerably to the sense of achievement.
"That (2014) was the first time this group of players were put on the hurling map as such in terms of identifying ourselves as a team with potential," Morris says. "We knew it (that we had potential) all along the way up. It is a question that lingers over me and a good few lads; why didn't we always get the best out of ourselves, why were we that little bit inconsistent? We were capable of beating a big team but we were capable of going out and being beaten by another team. I suppose it was disappointing that we didn't follow up on 2014 and have a good 2015 and 2016 campaign. But, look, at this stage there is no point in looking back on what might have been. You can only look forward really in hurling. There is no point in looking at the past."
Now it is all about the present and future. The arrival of Davy Fitzgerald has helped reinvigorate county hurling and opened a pathway to their first Leinster final since 2008. "It was all kept very quiet," says Morris of the Fitzgerald appointment. "It wasn't something they had been working on for two or three months or anything like that. He was still the Clare manager. It was a bit of a shock more than anything but it was a good shock because Davy's record speaks for itself, what he has done with college teams, what he done with Clare, not alone what he done as a player himself. He is bringing a wealth of experience to the county."
A few quick introductions and they were off. He recalls their first meeting. "Davy introduced himself and told us to get to know Davy a little more than you know from seeing him in general public and outlined his plans for the year and his backroom team. There was not too much to it and everything kicked on following that. We got straight into training and got going at it."
Their first training session took place in Ferns, which is their training base. "Look, it was a bit of a shock to the system at the start for the first couple of weeks (in November) but after that we got used to the set-up and every manager brings his own style of training methods.
"We did ball work but we obviously did a bit of physical fitness because we probably weren't in the physical condition that we needed to be in if we were wanting to go and I suppose reach a Leinster final where we are now.
"There was a good bit of an emphasis put on physical fitness but it was never a case of down the hurls for a hour and a half, you are doing running here. It was always doing something with the hurls along with a bit of fitness which is nice."
Morris sources his hurls from Brian Walsh in Enniscorthy. "From talking to Brian, Paul is one of the fussiest customers he has," says St Aidan's PRO Colm Lambert. "It has to be the right balance and weight. He is very meticulous in all sorts of ways." He is the second of three brothers. The youngest doesn't hurl and the eldest did but is now abroad. Their father captained the team that won the county intermediate title in 1984. In the club nobody has achieved higher than Dave Bernie, who was on the Wexford team that won the All-Ireland in 1996.
Morris has still a long way to go to match Bernie's feat. Already they are in bonus territory and outsiders against Galway today, though the last team to defeat them. The early wins in the league, including the one over Galway, gave them vital impetus.
"We had two massive tests, and they were seen as the matches that were going to be key, in terms of whether you were going to gain promotion or not," he states. "They were two matches that we targeted, Limerick and Galway, you are not going to get bigger challenges than that. Especially going up to Galway, going up to Salthill, it is place we have never really played a whole lot in over the years. Galway are not a team we have played a huge amount over the past six or seven years, they were big tasks but they were ones we had our eyes on and look we got the results, and got the promotion, which was massive."
Even before that there were markers. "We beat Dublin in the Walsh Cup as well, and we hadn't beat Dublin a huge amount in the past six or seven years. They pretty much humiliated us last year in Croke Park so Dublin are a team we wouldn't have a great record against, so when we beat them, there was a sense that something switched on and you thought, janey, maybe we could move on to the next level."
Against Kilkenny, they felt clear-headed, knowing that they had the potential to win the game. The experience gained in 2014 stood to them. After the match he remembers coming down from the South East radio commentary position with Harry Kehoe.
"And I just said to him, 'Look out on the pitch,' and it was unbelievable, it was just mobbed by Wexford supporters. It was a great scene and Wexford people are so passionate about their hurling and they are just screaming for a bit of success."
Some of that is down to Fitzgerald. Much of it is due to the players who have responded and taken each opportunity that has come their way. "Davy's belief and the experience he is bringing from what he has won is massive," says Morris, "but it also comes from the players, a lot of players have stood up this year, and stood up when it mattered and performed on days when we needed them, whether it be January or February or whether it was May or June in the championship, different guys have stood up on different days."
Morris works in sales for a company based in Enniscorthy called Future Nutrition. "We manufacture sports supplements, drinks and powders, that we export." That offers him added insight into supplements that may contravene the doping laws. "I have a little bit more knowledge about the subject than some of the guys, because I work in the industry.
"It is simple enough. There is a programme set up called Inform Sport, they are part of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and basically if you see their logo on a product, you know that it is suitable to take because it has been tested for banned substances. The important thing is that you are taking products that bear that logo."
The Brendan O'Sullivan case has raised the issue of awareness among GAA players. "It can happen, it can easily happen because you can buy almost anything online nowadays and that is where you have to be most careful. And online in sports supplements, for people who don't know it, has a bad reputation, people saying you can buy anything online but there are a few very good companies who are selling products online and they are very safe.
"But in many cases, it is buying online from America where some people are getting caught out. There are ingredients on it that are on the banned list. So a player can take something that is unknown to them and it will show up on a test."
Work takes him around Europe and requires some "juggling" with the hurling schedule. "If training is fixed for a Wednesday and you know you have to go, you try to go on a Sunday and come back Wednesday morning."
The schedules have been managed well to enable him serve both masters. At the moment all that effort is worthwhile and paying dividends. Wexford are in with a shot of a first Leinster title since 2004, a match he attended as a 14-year-old. But it is still a pastime and maybe now, the years zipping by, he is thinking of a life beyond. "At the end of the day, your work is your work and that is what pays the bills," he says. "And you have to do it when you finish up playing hurling. Hurling is not going to be there forever."
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