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Saturday 7 December 2019

Ballygarrett's bid for glory

Leinster Junior hurling crown up for grabs in Bellefield

Centre-forward Patrick Naughter celebrates with manager John Nolan and selector Murt Kavanagh after the county final victory over Geraldine O’Hanrahans
Centre-forward Patrick Naughter celebrates with manager John Nolan and selector Murt Kavanagh after the county final victory over Geraldine O’Hanrahans

Alan Aherne

Ballygarrett will be bidding to become only the third Wexford outfit to capture the AIB Leinster Club Junior hurling championship crown when they travel to Bellefield on Saturday to take on Conahy Shamrocks of Kilkenny at 1.30 p.m.

It's been a fairytale year thus far for the Gorey District crew, and a victory in a game of this magnitude would be something special.

And if the John Nolan-managed side are seeking inspiration, there is a perfect recent example as a club from the opposite end of the county - Fethard - beat Kilkenny opposition in the final as recently as 2017.

John Lockes from Callan were defeated in Innovate Wexford Park two seasons ago by 1-17 to 2-11, bridging a 17-year gap since the sole previous success by a Slaneyside club.

That arrived in 2000 - the inaugural competition - when Askamore accounted for Boardsmill of Meath on a 1-13 to 0-11 scoreline at a time when there wasn't an All-Ireland dimension.

Between those two Wexford successes, just one more club contested a final, with Clongeen losing to Tullogher-Rosbercon of Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in 2008 by 1-19 to 3-8.

Ballygarrett's sole bid for Leinster honours before this year arrived after their Junior championship victory of 2004.

On that occasion, they beat Ros Glas of Kildare by 1-14 to 1-3 in Monasterevin, and Kilcoole from Wicklow on home soil (5-9 to 0-4), before bowing out to Trumera (Laois) in Portlaoise by 3-8 to 2-8.

The Redmond brothers, Eddie and Stephen, Patrick Naughter, Colm Kennelly and substitute goalkeeper Mark Doyle - then an outfield player - are all survivors from that campaign, and their collective experience will carry a lot of weight next Saturday.

The record of Kilkenny clubs in this championship is a daunting one. Quite remarkably, their representatives have contested every final with the exception of that first clash between Askamore and Boardsmill 19 years ago.

A total of 14 titles have ended up on Noreside, with the balance made up by the two that went to Wexford along with St. Oliver Plunkett's of Westmeath in 2001, Erin's Own from Carlow in 2005, and Ballinamere (Offaly) in 2013.

And, even more significantly, next Saturday's opponents know what it takes to go all the way to All-Ireland glory in Croke Park.

Conahy beat Castlepollard (Westmeath) by 3-10 to 1-4 in the 2007 final, and followed up with a win over Glen Rovers from Armoy in Antrim before seeing off Moyle Rovers (Tipperary) at headquarters on a 0-19 to 1-9 scoreline.

And while survivors from twelve years ago may be thin on the ground, that is the type of know-how that can be passed from one generation to the next within a tight-knit club.

Interestingly, Conahy didn't win the Kilkenny title this year, but they are representing the county because second strings aren't allowed to compete.

O'Loughlin Gaels - who also boast a strong Senior side - defeated them by 1-17 to 1-15 in the decider, but they recovered with an away win over Fingallians (Dublin) by 2-17 to 1-9 before defeating the Longford Senior winners, Clonguish Gaels, on their home sod of the Polo Grounds in Jenkinstown by 1-22 to 0-7.

A notable figure among their backroom team is Diarmuid Healy, a native of the parish who was synonymous with the rise of the Offaly hurlers in the late seventies and early eighties.

Conahy is the home club of former G.A.A. President Nickey Brennan, and they had two stints in Senior ranks during his own playing days after winning Intermediate titles in 1977 and 1986, against Dicksboro and Piltown respectively.

Their most potent player is full-forward and captain James Bergin, still only 20 years old, while two of the teenagers in 2007 - Brian Healy and Kieran Mooney - will offer a lot of experience in the half-back line and at midfield respectively.

These are days that the good folk of Ballygarrett will remember for a long time to come, and it's all a far cry from the lows they were faced with at the start of 2018.

A 0-16 to 1-11 loss to Rathgarogue-Cushinstown at the end of 2017 saw them relegated to Intermediate 'A', and then they lost star attacker Cathal Dunbar in a transfer to Naomh Eanna.

Last year brought a two-point quarter-final exit to Duffry Rovers (3-13 to 1-17), but a victory at the same stage in early September against District rivals Craanford after extra-time (1-25 to 2-15) acted as a major fillip.

That game gave them the appetite for hard battles, and two more were needed as they subsequently defeated Gusserane by 2-15 to 1-16 and Geraldine O'Hanrahans (1-14 to 1-13) to claim a first-ever Intermediate 'A' title.

Since the introduction of this new third grade in 2012, the victors at that level have gone on to represent the county in the Leinster Junior championship.

In contrast to Conahy, their rivals next Saturday have never been a Senior team, and the closest they came was in 2011 when eventual champions Adamstown pipped them by 1-10 to 1-9 on their sole Intermediate semi-final appearance.

Indeed, Ballygarrett didn't feature in a Junior decider until the 1990 loss to Davidstown-Courtnacuddy, and they also missed out to Bannow-Ballymitty in 2003 before making it third time lucky when Our Lady's Island were beaten by 0-14 to 0-9 in the final twelve months later.

They were on the road for their two games in the province so far, stumbling over Naomh Bríd from Carlow in the Training Centre in Fenagh by 3-9 to 1-12 before showing their true capabilities in a 4-20 to 1-13 rout of Westmeath's Cullion in Mullingar.

Jack Hobbs has been in super scoring form all year from play and placed balls, while the Corcoran brothers, Cormac Moore-Kavanagh and Killian Doyle bring a lot of youthful verve to complement their more experienced players.

It will be a tall order, but Ballygarrett are capable of bringing a Leinster title home.

Incidentally, a jersey change may be on the cards since both wear black and amber, although the latter colour is a lot more prominent on the Conahy jerseys.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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