THE first hurling team to make an impression on me was the Wexford team of the Fifties. I had seen the great Tipperary three in a row side of '49 to '51, but somehow it was expected of them to be top-class. It was different with the Slaneymen who appeared as if they had come
TEAM OF MY LIFE/ MICHAEL O MUIRCHEARTAIGH
THE first hurling team to make an impression on me was the Wexford team of the Fifties. I had seen the great Tipperary three in a row side of '49 to '51, but somehow it was expected of them to be top-class. It was different with the Slaneymen who appeared as if they had come out of the blue.
The county had won its only All-Ireland in the code in 1910 and, by the start of the Fifties, a solitary Leinster title in 1918 was the only addition to the honours list.
They held a novelty interest by reaching the Home final of the 1951 National League before bowing out to Galway, the ultimate winners. Winning the Leinster title of that year was another step forward and the manner in which they turned a twelve-point League defeat into a five-point win over Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final was sensational.
Though soundly beaten by Tipperary in the All-Ireland final, the newcomers to the big stage were winners with the hurling public. They played the game with verve, using the catch and lift more than the other teams of the era. Several of them were men big in stature and they hurled in a courageous and manly way.
Their popularity grew by reaching the Home final of the League once more in 1952 and running All-Ireland champions Tipperary to one point.
Nobody personified the magical aura that enveloped this great team more than defender Bobby Rackard, from famed Killane, and he is my selection at right full-back. Initially he was an elegant centre half-back in the All-Ireland finals of '51 and '54.
An injury to full-back Nick O'Donnell in the course of the '54 final forced the selectors to drop Bobby back. His display in the new surroundings was simply astounding with his fearless but scrupulously fair brand of hurling becoming the feature that has endured from that contest. The full-back line was to be his hurling home from then on and, with the recovery of O'Donnell, he moved to the right corner.
He remained there during the glory run that followed when Wexford swept all before them in 1955 and '56.
Bobby's ability in catching the sliotar whether high or low and sending it far outfield in sweeping clearances figures to this day in song and story. He concentrated on a positive game rather than 'marking' an opponent and, for a man of his great size, he was agile and athletic.
Bobby was a star as Kilkenny were beaten in a replayed Leinster final in '55 and Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final. There was widespread rejoicing when Wexford won the All-Ireland title in September, truly becoming the 'People's Champions'.
Bobby was a humble hurler who didn't relish basking in glory, preferring instead to participate in the game as much as possible.
He shone in the popular Oireachtas Tournament and Wexford duly won the final in October by beating Kilkenny before a huge crowd.
The National League was next on the agenda. Bobby was again very prominent in the final when the All-Ireland champions came from fifteen points down at half-time to beat Tipperary by four in a hectic contest.
Prior to that, he had been a member of the Leinster team that contained ten Wexford players in the defeat of the might of Munster in the Railway Cup final.
By then, Bobby had been hurling for the county for eleven years, but he reached the pinnacle of his prowess during the championship of 1956. The finale with Cork was a sporting epic with a late surge ensuring Wexford's greatest ever triumph.
Celebration was not the immediate thought in Bobby's mind on the sound of the full-time whistle as he and Nick O'Donnell hoisted the defeated warrior - Christy Ring - on to their shoulders. That was the real Bobby Rackard, who also happened to be a superb hurler.
My choice was almost automatic, but I know that the late Bobby would have pleaded the case of other greats ahead of himself the 'Rattler' Byrne, Jimmy Brohan, Sylvie Linnane, Brian Murphy, Fan Larkin, etc.