Sampson hoping to harness power of faithful Offaly hurling supporters
By John Harrington
If forewarned really does mean forearmed, then Offaly should be well prepared for the challenge that Carlow will bring to them in Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup Final in Croke Park.
The Faithful County might be the more renowned hurling power, but Carlow have had the upper hand in this rivalry of late.
Their most recent meeting, just two weeks ago, saw Carlow triumph by 18 points.
Now, that result can be taken with a liberal pinch of salt because an Offaly team already qualified for the Final rested most of their first choice XV, but it nevertheless underlined the rich vein of form Carlow are currently in.
A more concerning defeat from an Offaly point of view would be last year’s Round 5 meeting in the Joe McDonagh Cup.
Playing at home, a hotly fancied Offaly only needed a draw to be assured of a place in the Joe McDonagh Final but instead Carlow dominated them and won by five points to deny them that final berth.
For Offaly players like team captain Jason Sampson, the nature of that defeat means they’re on red alert for the challenge that Carlow will pose on Saturday.
“We know exactly what Carlow are about,” he says. “They're physical, fast, well able to hurl, really good forwards, they're really compact in their backline as well. They don't leave a whole pile of space.
“We played them in Tullamore last year in our home field and, no point in lying, they came down and took over a bit really. They were physical and they got loads of scores and they out-hurled us all over and fully deserved their win that day.
“Our performance just wasn't good enough. They were by far the better team. They out-hurled us all over the field that day
“I wouldn't say we'll be out for revenge or anything like that. It's a new year and there are some new lads on both teams. A new management team for us as well. We're just hoping for a big performance on Saturday.”
Offaly were bullied around the middle third of the field in that defeat to Carlow last year and Sampson knows it’ll be the key battle-ground again on Saturday.
“A saying I like to use is that you have to earn the right to hurl,” he says. “The way that middle third in hurling nowadays is, and it's nearly a cliche, but you have to win that battle.
“You look at Limerick and Tipp on Sunday, how physical that was around the middle third like all the Munster games.
“Yeah, we'll be looking to earn the right and go on and hurl and get our scores from there. We'll be looking for massive work-rate. Like most teams that's what we base ourselves on. I think if you have that work-rate and you're tackling, hooking, and blocking, then your hurling and scores will follow from there.
“In fairness to the boys in the forwards they've been doing the business up until now. Hopefully it continues on Saturday.”
A Joe McDonagh Cup Final win and the promotion to the Leinster SHC for 2024 that would come with it would add further energy to the power surge Offaly hurling is currently generating.
There has been significant investment in coaching and infrastructure in recent years that is now bearing fruit, and there’s a real buzz in the county after last year’s run to the All-Ireland Minor Final and the recent Leinster U-20 Hurling Championship success.
“There is, yeah,” says Sampson. “The U-20s had a savage win last week and there was a great crowd down there. Yeah, there's a good buzz and things look positive.
“Hopefully there'll be a big crowd on Saturday for our match and I'd say there'll be a massive crowd on the bank holiday Sunday for the U-20s All-Ireland as well.
“There's a lot of work going in which has been the biggest thing. The Faithful Fields is a fantastic facility there now, second to none really in the country I'd say, and you'd meet all the other squads coming in and out so there's that bit of a bond there now between the groups.
“There's massive work going in coaching at underage in clubs and schools and development squads up to the minors and U-20s and hopefully that all keeps going.
“It feels like the building blocks are being put in place and we as a senior team have had a positive year so far winning the League and getting four wins in the championship. We were disappointed with our performance the last day against Carlow but hopefully we'll be able to rectify it on Saturday.”
Offaly hurling supporters are some of the most passionate in the country if they have a team to get behind, as evidenced by the numbers they came out in to back last year’s minor team and this year’s U-20 team.
Sampson hopes the county senior hurlers can now harness the same sort of energy from the county’s faithful as they try to make it back to the top table of the game again.
“Yeah, definitely,” he says. “That's a good point, the U-20s this year and the minors from last year have that connection. Their run to the final last year, the Friday evening semi-final win over Clare and then the final against Tipp captured the imagination of a lot of the supporters and they had a massive following in Nowlan Park.
“I was down at it and it was a really special occasion. Of course, we'd love to piggyback on a bit of that and hopefully people get out now on Saturday. The U-20s have that support nearly built up, maybe we need to build it up for ourselves and hopefully the Offaly people will come out and support us on Saturday and it might be the start of it.”