Youthful Wexford on song for taste of the big time
Yellow Bellies looking towards finally making it into the top flight, writes Damian Lawlor
After they beat Clare in an epic qualifier replay last year, the Wexford team regrouped in their dressing room and burst into song. For such a young team - Rory Jacob is the oldest in the squad at 32 - their choice of tune was unusual. They lashed out a version of Kenny Rogers' famous hit The Gambler.
"It came from being told that there was a message in that song for us," Lee Chin recalls. "We were told one night to go and listen to it, do some homework, learn from the song and find out what message to come back with.
"Gerry Fitzpatrick and Liam Dunne told us to take something from the song and we did. That's probably why we ended up singing it together - it was amazing, a great scene. Anyone outside the dressing room was probably wondering what was going on, but we weren't."
Chin looks back on last year with fond memories despite a quarter-final thrashing at the hands of Limerick.
"Last year generated great excitement and gave us a taste of the big time," he says.
"A run like ours brought us together as a team. When you're winning, especially when no one expects it, it's great. And by the end of our run we were like a team of brothers - like family.
"We grew so close and in those situations where you have tight games you learn how to deal with situations. Like the pressure ones we had in Ennis where we had to put in a performance against Clare and in the replay afterwards.
"On the first night against Clare, most in the county were probably happy with a draw, but we weren't. We eventually pulled through an epic battle and then won the Waterford game. Last summer was one of highlights of my career so far."
It was - and remains - an ultra-professional set-up with Dunne doing everything humanly possible to get his players to the next level. For some of the summer, Leinster and Ireland rugby player Seán O'Brien was in their camp.
"Seán was in touch with us a small bit during the year," Chin (pictured) says. "He was going through his experiences with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions, stuff like that. He was giving his experiences and knowledge of how to deal with certain things on match days and he also gave us a reality check in terms of the attitude that was needed to win at the highest level."
If the defeat to Limerick was a poor end to an otherwise fine year, not getting into Division 1A was another crushing disappointment for a team that needs to be hurling in the top flight to make sustained progress.
Chin is honest about their failure to land promotion.
"Getting to the top division was one of our main goals for the year," he admits. "We wanted to get up to compete next year with bigger teams. We got two cracks at it and we failed - it was very disappointing."
Yet there is no denying that they are a coming team, especially with so much good work taking place at minor and under 21 level. Work that came after a decade of stagnation.
"There's a little more pressure now and maybe it's a good thing because it keeps us close to the ground and we know we need to get work done," Chin adds. "We had no expectation on us for too long and when we didn't succeed people were not surprised. So yeah, there is expectation but we're dealing well with it. Some teams deal well with pressure and some don't - I think we can deal well with it.
"We feel we can compete with the best; we have fresh, young lads, including me, coming through over the last few years and we are very enthusiastic.
"The under 21 system in Wexford is working well; we won well last week again and hopefully we are on the road to reaching another Leinster final. The attitude of lads coming through is great - there is a real hunger to win. Growing up, we saw when Wexford were not doing well and it probably hit home early to some lads that they would have to do a lot more to make it work at the top level."
If they beat Westmeath today - and it might not be as simple as people think - they face the toughest task in the business, taking on Kilkenny in Nowlan Park.
If Chin is daunted by either prospect, he doesn't show it.
"The Wexford mindset is to fully believe," he states flatly. "But we are not looking past Westmeath; we are really looking forward to that. Westmeath are tough and one of us will go on to play the All-Ireland champions, and that will be a tough ask for whoever it is.
"But in 2014 we played the All-Ireland champions, Clare, and we showed no fear. Please God it will be the same if we get the chance again."
The 2004 Leinster title is the first landmark win that Chin can remember of his county's history. He was only three and a half when they won the 1996 All-Ireland.
"I remember looking at those games (in 2004) from the stand. I wanted to be out there some day and now this is my opportunity to do something. I'm 22 and there is a generation of our hurlers who don't recall '96 - Rory is probably the only one.
"But we'll have to meet Westmeath head on to try and get anywhere ourselves. They are physically strong, but we're also well down the line now in terms of having our physique in order and being physical too."
A few years ago, Liam Dunne saw his star-studded Oulart-The Ballagh side almost meet their Waterloo in the Leinster club championship when they took on Westmeath champions Raharney. They got out of Mullingar by the skin of their teeth. A win today will be well-earned. If they do get past the underdogs, Chin is asked what would constitute a good year for his team.
"To reach a Leinster final," he said. "If we could get there it opens a lot of doors. I just hope we get over today first."
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