Herbert in full command of Oulart's destiny
Published 24/11/2012 | 05:00
INSPIRATIONAL leadership is invaluable in battle and, in Colonel Pat Herbert, Oulart-The Ballagh's hurlers certainly have a manager who knows more than most about combat, on and off the field.
Herbert's own hurling career may never have yielded a Celtic Cross, but he played corner-back for Limerick in some of their best years, from 1973 to 1985, including in that famous 1980 All-Ireland final against Galway.
Herbert has also had a stellar Army career and the late Dermot Earley was one of his greatest friends.
When they were young recruits together they used to slip down to the Army pitches – one man with a hurl and sliotar, the other with a football – to tune up their skills before heading off to county training in Limerick and Roscommon.
Earley went on to hold the highest Army office in the land (chief of staff), while Herbert also rose through the ranks to become Senior Military Officer in the Irish Defence Forces.
And, ahead of tomorrow's heavyweight Leinster SHC club semi-final against Ballyhale Shamrocks, he is now embedded deep behind enemy lines, in James Stephens Barracks, Kilkenny.
"I'm the spy in the camp, right in the heart of Cats territory," Herbert quips. "I moved to live in Kells five years ago and would always be going to club matches locally. So, yes, you could say I have an intimate knowledge of Kilkenny club hurling."
Just last week Brian Cody was in with him for a function to honour the barracks' five All-Ireland winners: Eoin Larkin, Paul Murphy, Colin Fennelly (a new recruit in the Curragh), Ger Walsh (Tipperary intermediate) and Shelly Keogh (Wexford camogie).
Herbert (right), from Ahane, has regularly been touted as a potential Limerick senior manager.
He managed Toomevara to a Munster title in 2006, before Ballyhale ousted them with an extraordinary comeback in an epic All-Ireland semi-final.
At Toomevara the physical trainers he recruited were Ross Dunphy and Cian O'Neill, who both went on to fill that role with the Tipp hurlers and have just joined Dublin's hurlers and Kerry's footballers respectively.
After overseeing the closure of Clonmel Barracks and with a lot on his plate, Herbert had ruled out getting involved with any team this year, but the calls from Oulart last January, when they were looking for a replacement for Liam Dunne, proved impossible to resist.
Herbert is clearly energised and excited by his latest sports posting in Wexford as he looks to slay the big guns of Ballyhale.
"There's hurling in every house and the girls are just as good as the boys! So you have brothers and sisters, whole families, all playing hurling and camogie at the very top level," he says.
"There's also a very good boxing club locally and an athletics club. The whole place revolves around sport, it is wonderful."
But was he not worried about some potential mental frailties? Leinster is the Holy Grail for Oulart, who have lost the last two provincial finals (to Coolderry by four points last year and to O'Loughlin Gaels by three in 2010).
Though Oulart completed a Wexford four-in-a-row, they always knew things would only get tougher as they anticipated having to negotiate the Dublin and Kilkenny champions just to get back to the Leinster final.
"It was clear that Leinster was their big goal, and I knew immediately also that there would be no issues physically with them, or with their skill level or commitment.
"Given their history I felt their mental preparation was maybe something I could work on and I have brought in a sports psychologist," Herbert reveals.
"But the players weren't lacking in confidence or mental strength at all, it is just a question of harnessing it and getting it right on the day."
So far, so good. Only once locally, in the county quarter-final against Ferns, were they on the rack, but, by the end of extra-time, they had won by nine.
Against Kilmacud's star-studded cast they let a big lead slip, but still dug in and nicked it by a point.
"They just lost their way for some reason, but the great thing was they didn't cave in," Herbert says. "That comes from experience and it really stood to them the last day."
Now they face the team who beat them after extra-time on their home patch in the 2009 quarter-finals, a match at which Herbert was a paying punter.
In the Kilkenny final Ballyhale beat Dicksboro, more comfortably than the scoreline indicated, Herbert reckons, and their semi-final defeat of O'Loughlins was simply awesome.
But the Oulart boss is not go down without a fight and is hoping his troops can rise to the challenge.
"Look, Ballyhale's firepower up front, from the half-forwards onwards, is unbelievable, but if you want to be the best you have to beat the best," he stresses.