JOE MCDONAGH CUP Round One PREVIEW
By Daire Walsh
Kildare will look to build on their sparkling National Hurling League form when they welcome Carlow to St Conleth’s Park, Newbridge on Saturday afternoon for the opening round of the Joe McDonagh Cup (throw-in 4pm).
Courtesy of consecutive victories over Donegal, Derry, Roscommon and Mayo, the Lilywhites were crowned NHL Division 2B champions with both style and aplomb. At the end of their campaign, David Herity’s men had an astonishing scoring average of +77.
In addition to clocking up an impressive tally of 15-95 in four games, Kildare only leaked a relatively paltry total of 2-57. It was only in their final game against Mayo at MacHale Park, Castlebar that the Leinster side encountered any semblance of resistance from their third-tier opponents.
Either side of a 5-17 to 1-14 victory at the expense of Derry on May 23 in their alternative home venue of Hawkfield, the Lilies recorded 27-point triumphs over Donegal and Roscommon.
Having claimed the Christy Ring Cup with a showpiece win over Down at Croke Park last November, the next step for Kildare was to move up a level in the NHL. Now that this has been achieved, the challenge for Herity’s charges is to prove they are capable of competing in a higher championship grade.
Their neighbours Carlow are set to provide a stern test of their resolve this weekend, having dined at the top table of hurling in recent years. In 2019, the Barrowsiders were one of five teams in the Leinster Senior Hurling Championship, rubbing shoulders with recent Liam McCarthy Cup champions in Galway and Kilkenny as well as eventual provincial winners Wexford and Dublin.
While it ultimately was a struggle for them, they pushed Galway to their limit in their first game of the robin series before finally succumbing to a six-point reversal at Pearse Stadium, Salthill.
2020, meanwhile, saw Carlow operating in Division One of the National Hurling League. It was only due to a narrow reversal against Laois in Group B that the O’Hanrahan County were thrust into a relegation play-off, where defeat to Westmeath put them into Division 2A of this year’s NHL.
Although Offaly were comprehensive victors in the second-tier, it was a largely positive term overall for Carlow. Despite disappointing losses to the Faithful men and Down, there were impressive successes over Wicklow, Meath and Kerry. Considering the latter duo are also in the Joe McDonagh Cup - albeit in a different group - it bodes well for their chances of returning to the top-flight of hurling.
They certainly have an ace attacker in the shape of Marty Kavanagh. The St Mullin’s star was comfortably the top-scorer in Division 2A as he conjured 4-60 over the course of five games. John Michael Nolan and Chris Nolan were also prominent during an eventful campaign, contributing 5-10 and 3-12 respectively.
This shows there are multiple threats within this Carlow side for Kildare to be wary of. The Lilies have been defensively solid thus far in 2021, however, with Rian Boran and the returning Declan Flaherty providing solidity at the heart of their rearguard.
Goalkeeper Paddy McKenna and wing-back Kevin Whelan are others to have impressed, while the evergreen Paul Divilly has rolled back the years with a series of excellent displays at midfield. Like their provincial counterparts on Saturday, Kildare aren’t solely reliant on one player for the majority of their scores.
There were no fewer than four Lilies included in the top 10 scorers from this season’s Division 2B, with Johnny Byrne (4-10) and Jack Sheridan (2-16) their joint-highest contributors. Naas club-mates James Burke and Brian Byrne have also done their bit for the cause with 3-9 and 0-17 respectively.
Given the big-time experience they’ve built up over the last few years, the smart money is on Carlow to prevail from this contest. Still, Kildare are constantly improving under the guidance of former Kilkenny netminder Herity and are more than capable of upsetting the odds.
With three teams in each section of the competition, Westmeath will watch on this week as their Group A opponents do battle in Newbridge.
In Group B on Saturday, Kerry welcome Down to Austin Stack Park, Tralee for a 12.30 throw-in. Because both counties are in Division 2A of the National Hurling League, there is a recent form guide to draw on from these two teams.
In the opening round of the NHL third-tier, Kerry conquered the Mourne men on a final score of 4-18 to 0-19 in the same venue. Whereas that tie took place behind closed doors, there will be a small crowd permitted to attend their weekend meeting.
In spite of marquee forward Shane Conway being marked absent, the Kingdom had no trouble overcoming their eastern rivals. The Lixnaw man (a two-time Fitzgibbon Cup winner with UCC) has since returned from injury and ended the campaign as his county’s top-scorer.
Considering he played in only three of the five games that Kerry played, this shows how prolific a figure Conway is. Their league campaign may have ended in a heavy drubbing at the hands of Carlow, but additional wins over Meath and Wicklow means there have been more pluses than minuses to their season to date.
Both sides will be eager to make a statement in Tralee on Saturday, having endured heartbreaking ends to 2020. Down missed out on a Christy Ring Cup crown by virtue of a three-point final defeat to Kildare (3-16 to 0-22), while Kerry suffered an agonising loss to Antrim in the Joe McDonagh Cup decider; 0-22 to 1-17.
Even though Down were already guaranteed championship promotion before that final took place, the Kingdom needed to win their showpiece with Antrim in order to progress to the next level. The fact that the Saffron County have performed so well in NHL Division One ought to make Kerry all the more determined to leave their mark on the Joe McDonagh Cup in 2021.
Shane Nolan, Mikey Boyle and Maurice O’Connor are expected to provide ample support to Conway in the Munster side, with Nolan proving himself to be an able dead-ball deputy for Conway at the start of the year.
Paul Sheehan’s own free-taking prowess ensures Kerry can ill-afford to commit cheap fouls on home soil with the Newry Shamrocks man currently in excellent scoring form. The likes of Daithi Sands, Ronan Costello, Oisin MacManus, Eoghan Sands and Pearse Óg McCrickard also shone at different junctures in Division 2A as the Ulster men overcame a disappointing start to 2021 by defeating Carlow, Wicklow and Meath.
There was a heavy reversal to Offaly thrown into the mix, but it was a similar case for Kerry when they encountered the Faithful County.
A win for either side on Saturday will put them in an excellent position to claim a final place, with Group B’s other team - Meath - waiting in the wings.