Stamp leaves his mark on Ballyhale
A symphony of yelps and whoops in the refrigerated south east air, but the sky threw back Oulart's giddiness with a scalding look.
Kilkenny scalps are two-sided prizes when there's no cup in your hands and no speech required from the stand promenade. So the Wexford boys quickly gathered themselves, counselling one another with oaths of equanimity after securing a place in the final for the third consecutive year.
They got there courtesy of a glorious injury-time point from wing-back Eoin Moore with the game swinging from end to end on a wild, unstable pendulum.
And the sight of Henry Shefflin afterwards, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, hobbling down the dressing-room tunnel captured a pretty central theme to Saturday's compelling narrative in Wexford Park. For the great man left the field with an ankle injury just 24 minutes in and to suggest that his absence probably deprived Ballyhale of at least a couple of points scarcely required a leap into the realm of fantasy.
Ballyhale registered just a single point in the second half, the otherwise wonderful James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick spurning a couple of second-half opportunities from placed balls that Shefflin would, ordinarily, devour.
The Kilkenny champions also had goals by Michael Fennelly and Eoin Reid ruled out, the first – in the 27th minute – disallowed after Fennelly was deemed to have over-carried in the course of a wonderful 30-yard run and finish. Then Reid's effort, in the 58th minute, was denied for a reputed push on Oulart goalkeeper Ben O'Connor.
So Oulart-The Ballagh had their share of undoubted good fortune, yet were entitled to believe that none of it was more than they deserved.
Shefflin's departure allowed Darren Stamp dominate from centre-back and, around him, the Oulart backs became increasingly miserly, clamping down especially on Fitzpatrick, who finished with five points from play, four of them in the first half. Yet it was an agonisingly slow process, hauling in the Kilkenny men.
Ballyhale led 1-3 to 0-0 inside five minutes, the goal coming after Colin Fennelly cleverly outfoxed Keith Rossiter 40 yards from goal to turn, sprint maybe half the distance, then blaze an authoritative finish past O'Connor. "Typical Kilkenny team," observed Stamp later. "Looking to finish you off in the first 10 or 15 minutes."
That half was, essentially, the 'Cha' show with Fitzpatrick firing sublime scores from all angles in a virtual one-man exhibition. But two incidents approaching half-time brought profound change. Fennelly's disallowed goal was the first, for it would have pushed Ballyhale a commanding 2-8 to 0-5 clear.
The second was a 30th-minute goal by Garrett Sinnott, torquing on to a Paul Roche delivery and colliding heavily with a defender as he fired past Richard Reid.
A schemozzle erupted in the small square, resulting in a yellow for Ballyhale corner-back Alan Cuddihy and palpable restlessness among colleagues. David Redmond quickly added a point, allowing Oulart return to their dressing-room just three points adrift. It all but felt like a lead.
Rossiter certainly interpreted it that way. "I said it at half-time," he reflected later. "It's the first time that I saw that bunch of lads – and we've been there a long time – holding the heads so well after getting the early setback of the goal."
Nicky Kirwan was inches wide with a pulled goal attempt five minutes after the resumption, but his 49th-minute '65' had Oulart level (1-10 each), Darren Nolan (two) and Frank Cullen having scored points with Ballyhale's solitary response yet another 'Cha' special.
From there, it was a blizzard of reciprocal panic. "Yeah but if it finishes at only one point to nil and you're ahead at the end, that's all that matters," grinned Rossiter.
Kirwan mishit a free, then pulled the resultant '65' wide. Then Reid's goal was disallowed at the far end and, with a minute remaining, 'Cha' was off-target with a Ballyhale free after a foul on Colin Fennelly.
Substitute Des Mythen then almost broke on to an Oulart goal chance only for the sliotar to bounce clear off his helmet. So the game was two minutes into added time when Lar Prendergast fed Moore for a glorious 70-yard winner.
For Stamp, the victory seemed to carry a special resonance.
"'The crowd today was unreal," he said of an estimated 5,000 attendance allowed through the turnstiles free. "Coming off the field, you had Rathnure men, Buffers Alley men, Barntown men and all supporting you. The crowd was just back to old Wexford. They are the best supporters in Ireland, best supporters in the world and it just felt like back to the old days."
Still, the looming danger isn't unfamiliar to Oulart. A year ago, they beat James Stephens in the Leinster semi-final, only to get caught by Coolderry in the final. Now, once more, an Offaly team is busy setting traps.
Kilcormac-Killoughey will be their opponents at Nowlan Park next Sunday (2.0) and Stamp suggests that last year's hurt might, ultimately, be Oulart's most powerful weapon.
"There's nothing on the table, no medals or silverware" he reflected. "But at least we've given ourselves a chance to win a Leinster final, try and put the wrongs of last year right. If we bring that intensity to the next game, we've a fair chance.
"So we've just got to regroup now and give these Kilcormac lads a good lash. I know nothing about them to be honest. But they've won their first county title and are in their first Leinster final. They've nothing to lose, like we had today. They won't be worried about Oulart-The Ballagh, we'll just have to worry about our own game.
"If we play like we played today and lose then that's fair enough. At least we leave nothing on the field and come home with no regrets. We had regrets last year and they stuck with us for the whole winter."
For Ballyhale manager Tommy Shefflin there was the added disappointment of yet another injury to his celebrated younger brother. It is thought that Henry might have a broken bone in his ankle.
"We've no quarrels," said Shefflin, while offering a strident rebuttal of criticism of the club calendar.
"See the crowd here today," he said, "I'll bet you there was nobody cold above in the stand today! A game in the middle of December and people on about the club championship being played... like, this is what the club championship is all about, played in November and January and February and training in the cold nights.
"People are saying play it in the middle of the summer, but it wouldn't be the same. I'll bet you Dicksboro or Carrickshock would love to have been here today."
Thirteen years on, then, from the last Wexford triumph in this competition, Oulart face perhaps their most defining hour.
"This is everything now," said Rossiter.
"But we're only back where we were last year."
SCORERS – Oulart-The Ballagh: D Nolan 0-3, G Sinnott 1-0, D Redmond, N Kirwan (1f, 1 '65') 0-2 each, F Cullen, C O'Leary, R Jacob, E Moore 0-1 each. Ballyhale Shamrocks: J Fitzpatrick 0-6 (0-1f), C Fennelly 1-1, E Reid 0-2, H Shefflin 0-1 (f).
OULART-THE BALLAGH – B O'Connor; D Morton, K Rossiter, B Kehoe; E Moore, D Stamp, C Goff; D Redmond, S Murphy; G Sinnott, P Roche, D Nolan; R Jacob, C O'Leary, N Kirwan. Subs: L Prendergast for Goff (10), F Cullen for Murphy (35), D Mythen for for Roche (45).
BALLYHALE SHAMROCKS – R Reid; P Shefflin, A Cummins, A Cuddihy; M Dermody, J Holden, R Aylward; E Walsh, M Fennelly; J Fitzpatrick, H Shefflin, M Aylward; E Reid, C Fennelly, D Hoyne. Subs: P Reid for H Shefflin (24), L Grant for Hoyne (47).
Ref – B Kelly (Westmeath).