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'You could see the delight on their faces. It was so special because it had taken a long time'

Former Wexford hurler Declan Ruth on managing his club to a first senior title in 43 years last Sunday.

AT HALF-TIME in Wexford Park last Sunday, the heroes of ‘96 took centre stage.

A team beloved by the local hurling fraternity for their achievements 25 years ago, their status has been reinforced by the lack of an All-Ireland senior title or final appearance for the county’s flagship hurling side since then.

Covid-19 restrictions had denied them the chance to be paraded in Croke Park for last month’s All-Ireland decider, a measure of compensation was provided by the acclaim received on Wexford county senior hurling final day.

Beforehand Liam Griffin and Martin Storey traded memories in a TG4 interview, at the interval they joined the icons from that time like Dunne, O’Gorman and O’Connor. The venue basked in the warm glow of hurling nostalgia.

Declan Ruth was marked absent from the gathering on the pitch.

He was present in the stadium but needed elsewhere instead of recalling his time as a 20-year-old who shared in that success.

Standing in the dressing-room as manager of the Rapparees team who were six points clear, was a good place to be.

“I firmly hoped I wasn’t going to be next or near it,” Ruth recalls.

“I was delighted I wasn’t because I was so happy to be involved in doing what we were doing.

“At half-time we were in a decent position and I thought I’d much rather be here.”

declan-ruth Rapparees manager Declan Ruth.

That position became more positive as the match wore on. By full-time they had chalked up 6-18, the highest total recorded in over a century in Wexford senior deciders.

A 16-point success was quite a way to end a barren spell that stretched back to 1978 and it occurred in the club’s first final outing since 2001.

But if it was a new hurling experience, it was a familiar county final experience. Rapparees are the hurling wing, Starlights their football compatriots. The pair operate under the banner of Enniscorthy Hurling and Football club.

There is a strong crossover. When he made his name as a defensive anchor of Wexford hurling teams, Ruth was also winning county football titles with Starlights in 2002 and 2004.

The current hurling crop did likewise in football in 2017 and 2020.

“That can’t be under-estimated. I know it was a different sport but all this group would have won one last year and many of them again would have won one in ’17. So they were familiar with county final day hype. That helped because then you can just focus on the game itself and all that other stuff isn’t going to be a distraction.”

System tweaks have also helped them prosper. Ruth has witnessed enough of the county and club requirements to appreciate the split season.

“The system in Wexford now really benefits the dual clubs because they’re running off hurling and then football. It really has focused minds and allowed the hurling to have a full run at it, then you turn that around it’ll all be football from now on.

“Liam Griffin asked me to do a small little bit with the CPA in terms of trying to get the seasons as they are now. That was the whole aim of the CPA which thankfully, by hook or by crook, has came to be. It’s a great system and it’s here to stay.

“There’s certainty for the club player and he sees his county colleague coming back, saying they’re all start to train in earnest for the championship a few weeks out from it. The uncertainty made it near impossible. All these guys have other interests in life too.”

lenny-connolly-celebrates-after-scoring-a-goal Lenny Connolly celebrates after scoring a goal for Rapparees. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The conditions were there for Rapparees to prosper with Wexford hurling figures like Liam Ryan and Kevin Foley at the core of their side. They had a collection of talented players. Last year they lost their group games to the eventual finalists Shelmaliers (5 points) and Naomh Eanna (one point). That reminded them they weren’t far away and getting S&C coach Larry Doyle on board helped them make gains.

Still there was over four decades in the wilderness to overcome.

“It is hard to put your finger on why it actually never happened until now,” reflects Ruth.

“There was ’93, ’96, ’98, 2001, we were beaten in all those hurling finals. That bunch had been together, they would have won multiple underage titles all up along. A bit like this current bunch, except we never sealed the deal.

“In the last 20 years, we were probably more off the mark than on it. This bunch was signalled from way back. If we could keep them together, again which is not easy to do in an urban setting, but thankfully they’ve all stayed and they love playing with the club.”

Two of their longest-serving warriors got to enjoy their day in the sun. Tomas Mahon and Tom Wall were involved in the 2001 senior final, stuck around for 20 years and at last shared in a victory as they came off the bench in the second half.

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tom-wall-with-his-sons-aidan-and-james Rapparees player Tom Wall with his sons Aidan and James.

“It was funny, Tom was coming on and we were 15 points up,” recalled Ruth.

“He said, ‘I don’t even think I can mess this one up.’

“Tomas actually played in ’98 as well. They’re just good lads to train and great club men. Tomás was effective every day he came on. he was positive and he was scoring, a real impact player.

“Tom hadn’t struck a ball this year in the championship but he made some great sacrifices to be there for training, to come down for practice matches, knowing that he probably wasn’t going to be playing in. He was still a driving force. It was great to send him on.”

Ruth played in the 2001 final loss, then was drafted in as selector last year by another illustrious Wexford name Adrian Fenlon, with a view of taking charge this season.

For all marquee days he partook in with Wexford teams over a decade of inter-county service, the aftermath of last Sunday’s club achievement demonstrated the significance of a club triumph.

henry-sheffli-and-declan-ruth Declan Ruth with Henry Shefflin after the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“In many ways it kind of tops the lot of them because they’re in the past and this is right now. There is that sense of achievement that it affects a lot of people and makes a lot of people happy. It’s really satisfying what happened there on Sunday.

“Everyone was craving it. There was a lot of soccer success in the town, rugby, obviously the football in the club. That was the one thing that annoyed us. Anything that’s taken a long time, is going to be extra special. We just felt that we haven’t been achieving, with the talent that has come through the club..

“On Sunday night and Monday in Enniscorthy, you see all those lads that played back in the 90s, and then you go back further Ger Collins, who captained the team in ’78, and his grandson was playing on Sunday.

“Even some of the old Aidans lads, who were pre-Rapparees, who won nine titles in the ten years, Podge Kehoe and all those guys, they were all there Sunday and Monday popping in and out, you could see the delight on their faces. It was so special because it had taken a long time.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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