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School days with Tadhg Furlong and inspired by Wexford All-Ireland winning grandfather

The Wexford joint captain will keep a close eye on the Lions trip to New Zealand.

Matthew O'Hanlon faces Laois tomorrow with the Wexford hurlers.
Matthew O'Hanlon faces Laois tomorrow with the Wexford hurlers.
Image: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

IN GOOD COUNSEL College, they were school mates.

Matthew O’Hanlon from St James and Tadhg Furlong from Horeswood, products of two rural clubs that journeyed into New Ross where they shared classrooms together.

A devotion to sport was always a common interest. Since they put the pen down for their last Leaving Cert exam, their sporting careers have diverged.

O’Hanlon anchors the Wexford hurling defence, joint captain tomorrow in Portlaoise as they commence a championship campaign that bristles with promise after their bright league days this spring.

Furlong has anchored the scrums for Leinster and Ireland to date in 2017, he’s going to add the Lions to his CV as they jet off to New Zealand this week. His career trajectory continues to travel upwards in stunning fashion.

“Tadhg and I are good mates, he’s pretty much a neighbour of mine at home,” says O’Hanlon.

“I’m just delighted to see him getting on so well. He’s worked very, very hard over the last number of years and he’s reaping the rewards for it now.

“It’s great to see him mixing with the best rugby players in the world. It brings the spotlight to Wexford.

“24 years of age picked as a Lion, playing for Leinster week in week out and playing for his country is absolutely massive.”

Tadhg Furlong Tadhg Furlong at Lions training this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

When they were younger, O’Hanlon joined Furlong for a while in New Ross rugby club but mostly their sporting battles were defined by underage GAA clashes.

O’Hanlon had a front row view of the future Irish rugby international acting as a battering ram in Gaelic football.

“Tadhg would have played underage for Wexford hurling and Gaelic football, we would have come up against each other several times underage.

“I didn’t specifically mark him. We would have ran into each other a few times thought. I won’t tell you who came out the best!”

Source: tmfl/YouTube

Furlong has never lost that connection with his Wexford roots.

“Tadhg is as down to earth as they come. He’d have no airs or graces about him. He wouldn’t let be that way where we’re from!

“His family keep him well grounded. He likes to get back to Wexford when he can. He’s a big supporter of his club Horeswood and he’s a big supporter of Wexford GAA in general.

“He’d continue to check in with us to see how we’re getting on. It’s great that as a professional he maintains that focus on where he came from.”

O’Hanlon has watched Furlong’s rise and been able in recent times to point to milestones of his own. Last summer Wexford ended a 60-year stranglehold that Cork had held over them in the senior championship arena.

It was a win that had deeper significance in the O’Hanlon family. In 1956 Wexford toasted All-Ireland glory against Cork. Thousands packed into Croke Park for a final adorned by the heroics of Nicky Rackard, Christy Ring and Art Foley.

Amidst those luminaries, Mick O’Hanlon was a key cog in the Wexford wheel. Six decades later his grandson provided a connection as the barren run against Cork was broken.

“I wasn’t actually aware that the last time we had beaten Cork was when my grandfather was playing, so that was a nice bit of nostalgia afterwards when my grandmother told me,” reflects O’Hanlon.

“It was a nice connection between the two. I didn’t get the chance to meet him. He passed away before I was born.

Patrick Horgan and Matthew O’Hanlon Patrick Horgan and Matthew O'Hanlon in opposition last summer. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“He was from Horeswood, that’s my father’s club. I’ve seven uncles and an auntie there. When I was growing up, it was all talk what my grandad had achieved.

“He won All-Ireland’s in the 1950s as a player and was a selector in the 1960s.

“There’d be old scrapbooks, pictures of those teams he was involved with around the house as well so I’d be familiar with everything he achieved.”

Those stories of his grandfather’s exploits stoked the hurling fire inside O’Hanlon. It wasn’t the only sport competing for his interest.

He comes from a pocket in south Wexford where Gaelic football is strong. Wexford have only been crowned Leinster U21 champions once and O’Hanlon was a lynchpin at midfield on that team who created history in 2011.

In October 2015 he was central to another breakthrough, man-of-the-match as St James became Wexford senior football champions for the first time.

“We lost two intermediate football finals, won the third final, then went straight up and won senior so that was just was a massive day for our parish. I actually have a medal now in nearly every grade in Wexford from junior D to senior.

“I played three years U21 football with Wexford. I went in with the seniors in 2012 after the hurlers were knocked out but I’ve been senior hurling since.

Wexford's Matthew O'Hanlon Wexford defeated Longford 1-9 to 0-11 in the 2011 Leinster U21 final. Source: James Crombie

“The New Ross district is football centric but for me and with my grandfather having played, hurling is something I’m passionate about. That’s not to say I won’t play football for Wexford at some stage or another.

“But it’s difficult in any dual county, it’s hard to commit to both. Priority calls have to be made when you’re trying to make a career for yourself as well, you can only afford to give time to one.”

Work sees O’Hanlon in a marketing role with Proctor & Gamble in Ballymount in Dublin. He went to college in UCD so has been based in the capital throughout his Wexford senior hurling career. The travel is an extra burden yet there’s plenty to share the load.

“The motorway is a godsend. A few years ago, the roadworks would mean it’d take you more than three hours. That was hardship.

“But there’s about 10 of us here between college and work. We car pool together and it’s good craic when you’ve four or five lads in the car heading down to training.”

This spring has brought its rewards on the pitch. They booked promotion from Division 1B and then claimed a seismic quarter-final win over Kilkenny.

In his school days, O’Hanlon hurled alongside Ger Aylward and Walter Walsh in Good Counsel.

They nearly won an All-Ireland together, denied when they fell two points short in the Croke Cup final in 2009 against a Thurles CBS team captained by Tipperary’s James Barry.

Matthew O'Hanlon Matthew O'Hanlon (right) in action in the 2009 Croke Cup final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Since then O’Hanlon has watched his former Good Counsel team-mates collect their All-Ireland medals and win their All-Star awards. It offers a neat comparison in the inter-county lives they lead.

“When you look at those players and having played with them, you know there’s no difference between them and us.

“But when they’re with Kilkenny, over the last number of years they’ve achieved phenomenal stuff. That’s under Brian Cody, the high standard they’ve maintained is really impressive.

Walter Walsh and Matthew O'Hanlon Walter Walsh and Matthew O'Hanlon battle for the ball in Nowlan Park in April. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“They’ve several All-Ireland medals in their back pockets. We’ve beaten them in the league quarter-final, we’ve no medals to show for it.

“That was one of the biggest areas of development for me, in school playing with these guys from Kilkenny. Good Counsel is a school that embraces both codes, they just want to see kids out playing.

“Playing a high level brought us to a new place. There’s a good bunch of us that would have come through together and it’s good fun to be going up against each other now.”

O’Hanlon has high ambitions with Wexford. When word first drifted towards him last winter that Davy Fitzgerald was coming on board, he was excited.

Witnessing the Clare man’s passion and organisation has left him enthused. They’ve started well but there’s bigger expectations to meet if they are to keep their supporters in full voice in 2017.

Laois are the first hurdle in Leinster to surmount.

“Wexford supporters are the best in the country, I keep saying it. It’s nice to have them behind us in a positive way, give them something to shout about because they’ve been crying out for a long time.

“Having massive support behind us gives us a real boost. There’s a lot more work left to do but hopefully we’ll get to the right pitch and see where that takes us.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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