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By Daire Walsh

After losing out to Carlow and Offaly respectively on the opening weekend, Wicklow and Meath will both be looking to get their National Hurling League Division 2A campaigns on the right track when they clash at Joule Park Aughrim on Saturday afternoon (throw-in 2pm).

While there is still a lot of hurling left to play, this difficult start to the season - coupled with the calibre of the other sides in the division - means the two teams are already trying to stave off the threat of relegation. The county that finishes bottom in this six-strong group will be automatically relegated to Division 2B for 2022, so this is a must-win game for both panels of players.

Wicklow had been competitive for large stretches of last Sunday’s encounter with Carlow at Netwatch Cullen Park. At the midway point in the contest, they trailed the much-fancied Barrowsiders by just five points (0-13 to 0-8).

The hosts did push into overdrive on the resumption, however, Marty Kavanagh (two) and Ross Smithers rattling the net to propel Carlow towards a 3-19 to 0-17 victory. Still, there were some displays within the Wicklow side that provide cause for optimism as the Garden County look to push forward for the remainder of 2021.

Full-forward Christopher Moorehouse registered eight points from placed balls, while Michael Boland and Daniel Staunton contributed two points apiece. Despite only being introduced in the 44th-minute, Andy O’Brien finished the game with three points from play.

Meath played host to Offaly at Páirc Tailteann in Navan and even though Mark O’Sullivan, James Kelly and Jack McGowan all raised green flags, they fell to a comprehensive 3-25 to 3-9 reversal. Already 12 points adrift at the interval (2-13 to 0-7), the Royals remained second best to Michael Fennelly’s visitors.

Aside from their goalscorers, Padraic O’Hanrahan (0-4), Alan Douglas (0-2), Adam Gannon and Gavin McGowan (0-1 each) also did their best to keep Meath in contention.

It was always likely to be a tough opening for Wicklow and Meath, with a number of players within the Carlow and Offaly ranks having featured for their counties in the Liam McCarthy Cup in the recent past. They will feel that two points is a more achievable target this weekend.

Meath edged last year’s league meeting in Navan on a margin of four points (2-25 to 3-18), but Wicklow will hope that home advantage can count for something on Saturday.

There is no underestimating how big a year 2021 is for Michael Fennelly and Offaly. Although gaining promotion to the Joe McDonagh Cup is perhaps the biggest item on their agenda, returning to Division One of the National Hurling League is also something the Faithful County will desire.

The dead-ball accuracy of Eoghan Cahill was on display during a truncated 2020 and he picked up where he left off in Offaly’s triumph over Meath last weekend. His return of eight frees and two sideline cuts - supplemented by two points from open play - saw him coming away with a healthy tally of 0-12.

Centre-forward Liam Langton also delivered a superb performance, posting five points from play over the course of 70 plus minutes. In total, Offaly had 12 scorers on the day - including green flag contributors Shane Kinsella, Oisin Kelly and Adrian Hynes.

Cahill was withdrawn on 68 minutes, with Shane Dooley taking his place. Dooley remains the marquee figure within the Offaly set-up and he converted a late free to round off a comprehensive win for his side.

This Sunday sees them hosting Kerry at O’Connor Park in Tullamore (throw-in 2pm) and this will be a big test of their mettle. When the two sides met in the Joe McDonagh Cup back in June 2019, a 1-18 to 1-16 defeat to the Kingdom saw Offaly relegated to the Christy Ring Cup for 2020.

The Faithful didn’t fare any better in last year’s edition of Division 2A, losing out to Kerry by three points (2-11 to 0-14). Whereas both of these tightly-contested games took place at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, it is Offaly who will play host for their latest showdown.

The absence of a crowd could be a significant leveller and Kerry do come into this fixture on the back of a 4-18 to 0-19 victory over Down. Despite being without their star man Shane Conway, the Kingdom overcame a two-point interval deficit (0-11 to 0-9) to claim an emphatic success.

Goals from Shane Nolan (two), Maurice O’Connor and Fionan O’Sullivan dented the confidence of the Mourne men and consequently put Kerry into an unassailable position.

Kerry have their own promotion aspirations and given how close their recent clashes have been, a similar dogfight is anticipated on Sunday.

Earlier on the same day, at 1pm in Ballycran, Down will be aiming for an immediate response to this disappointment when Carlow arrive in the Newtownards area.

Rather than focus too much on the negative aspects of their performance against Kerry, the Mourne management may well look to build on the positive elements that were showcased in Tralee.

Centre-forward Paul Sheehan was their scorer-in-chief, finishing the contest with 11 points - including 10 from placed-balls. Ronan Costello and Tim Prenter also knocked over a brace of points, with the latter having been introduced as a half-time substitute.

However, just three of their starting forward line scored on the day and this is something that will need to improve if they are to topple Carlow.

Whilst Kavanagh’s final haul of 2-9 was a crucial factor in their success over Wicklow, the St Mullin’s man received ample support from his Carlow team-mates. Craig Wall and Chris Nolan amassed three points each to handsomely compliment the 0-2 salvos of Jack Kavanagh and John Michael Nolan.

The Barrowsiders are just behind Offaly and Kerry on score difference at the moment and it could be fine margins that dictates who secures top spot in the final standings.

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