Matthew O'Hanlon: I've new-found hunger after year abroad
Wexford hurling captain Matthew O'Hanlon set aside his hurling ambitions for a summer of travel and adventure last year – but now he returns to the championship fray feeling refreshed, eager and committed to the Slaneysiders' Leinster campaign.
O'Hanlon (22), was honoured to be named as skipper by manager Liam Dunne and the latter's decision indicates the esteem in which he holds the prodigiously talented St James's clubman.
And as one of only five players to feature in all of Wexford's Division 1B matches this season, O'Hanlon has clearly settled back into the rigours of senior inter-county hurling.
On Sunday, he will lead out the Wexford side against Antrim, who came through the Leinster provincial round-robin series to qualify for this duel at Portlaoise. And he does so armed with the knowledge that his time-out from county duties has broadened his perspective on life, as a person and as a sportsman.
Three years ago, O'Hanlon made his senior debut under the management of Colm Bonnar in the 2011 National League when he wasn't long out of the minor grade.
The same year, he won an U-21 Leinster football medal with Wexford and he was named the county's 'U-21 Hurler of the Year' for 2012, despite the hurlers' loss to Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final of that year.
Liam Dunne played O'Hanlon at senior level in 2012 – the manager's first season in charge – but in September of that year, the player's studies took priority.
"I'm studying commerce and spanish in UCD and I went to Madrid in September 2012 for my Erasmus year. I studied there for nine months, up until May 2013.
"A year ago in early May, I was probably sitting in a café in Madrid enjoying myself, but it's great to be back. I've a new-found hunger after my year abroad, so I'm delighted to be back in training and to be looking forward to the championship. It's a great feeling," said O'Hanlon.
A dual player who knows all about the demands imposed on talented youngsters, O'Hanlon reflected on the benefits of taking a time-out– although he acknowledges that knowing the Erasmus year was mandatory removed any possibility of equivocating on going abroad.
"From my own perspective, I had nearly four or five years of non-stop hurling – between colleges, club, U-21 and senior – so it was great to get a break," he explained.
"Now, looking back on it, it was a positive thing. I'm far more positive and I'm looking forward.
"I'm not dreading going training and I'm really looking forward to the championship – I've a new-found hunger.
"I was home for a few days and then I went to San Francisco for the summer and I was back last September to start the final year and to get back into the swing of things and get back to normality."
So, should more young players avail of their student time to go abroad?
"Every case is different, in my opinion. The Erasmus year was always a mandatory year for my degree – I was going away regardless," he explained.
"It's very difficult for a young player coming out of minor and trying to make a stab at the senior team and U-21 team to maybe take a step back and take a break.
"He probably feels he mightn't get that opportunity again, but each case has to be looked at (on its merits) and the player has to look at himself and ask 'what's best for me?'
"If he's feeling burned out at the age of 18 or 19, then maybe the wise thing is not to continue that way, and take a step back."
Antrim will, no doubt, offer a strong threat to Wexford after coming through the provincial round- robin series alongside Laois, who play Galway, also at Portlaoise.
"They've got four championship games under their belt. That means they're going to have their tactics spot on and their team pretty much spot on. We're very conscious that we don't want to get caught cold," said O'Hanlon.