NATIONAL HURLING LEAGUE DIVISION 2B PREVIEW
By Daire Walsh
A spot in the second-tier of next year’s National Hurling League will be up for grabs on Saturday afternoon in MacHale Park, Castlebar (throw-in 2pm), where Mayo and Kildare clash in the final round of Division 2B.
Just two points currently separate the counties in the group standings, with Kildare’s perfect record from their opening three games giving them the edge over the westerners - who lost out to Donegal in their most recent competitive fixture. While the Lilywhites have a vastly superior scoring average, this won’t be factored into the equation as the final placings in both the hurling and football leagues are based on head-to-head, unless more than two teams are on the same number of points.
This is what helps to make this clash so intriguing and although all known form points towards Kildare coming out on top, David Herity’s charges have to go out there and do the business nonetheless.
Christy Ring Cup champions in 2020, the Lilies began their campaign with a thoroughly comprehensive 4-29 to 0-14 success over Donegal. The return of Coill Dubh duo Declan Flaherty and Johnny Byrne to the fold was a major boost for Herity in advance of this year’s competition and they have helped to push Kildare onto an extra level in Division 2B.
Byrne was previously a member of the Kildare footballers, before ultimately drawing a close to that chapter of his inter-county career last winter. He has already contributed 4-8 for his county in 2021, making him the Lilywhites’ top-scorer to date.
This is particularly impressive when you consider he isn’t even a free-taker, but Kildare haven’t been reliant on placed-balls to get them to where they are. Of their final tally of 5-17 against Derry in round two, only five points were from frees.
It was a similar case in their win at the expense of Roscommon in Dr Hyde Park last Sunday, with 3-24 of their 4-25 haul coming from open play. The exceptions were a majestic sideline cut by Jack Sheridan in the opening half and a goal from a free courtesy of the same player on the resumption.
The one issue that Herity has had with his team’s performances thus far had been the way they have dropped off in the closing-quarter of games. Whilst this is a valid criticism when you trace the sequence of scores, Kildare have effectively had the points wrapped up long before the final whistles have blown.
The last day out against the Rossies, the Leinster men were 20 points in front at half-time (3-15 to 0-4) which ensured it was a damage limitation exercise for their opponents on the resumption. Mayo can ill-afford to let Kildare dictate the flow of Saturday’s game or they will suffer a similar fate to that of their provincial rivals.
Derek Walsh’s side had made a bright start to the league with back-to-back triumphs over Derry and Roscommon, leaving them in the frame for promotion in the process. Like Byrne, Keith Higgins has switched back to the small ball game after bringing the curtain down on his elongated journey with the county’s footballers.
He contributed 1-8 across those two wins, while fellow attacker Shane Boland amassed a combined haul of 12 points. However, Higgins was marked absent for the subsequent trip to Donegal and his presence was certainly missed.
Bouncing back from their heavy reversal to Kildare, Donegal recorded a 4-18 to 0-13 victory at O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny. Declan Coulter fired over 2-8 to supplement the excellent pair of Richie Ryan (1-2) and Bernard Lafferty (0-4).
Because of how both teams have fared in their respective bouts with Donegal, Kildare will be firm favourites to claim the spoils in this game. Yet, with close to three weeks having past since they were last in action, you suspect there could be a final kick in Mayo before their Nicky Rackard Cup campaign gets underway.
There are also valuable points up for grabs at the opposite end of the table when bottom-two Derry and Roscommon meet at the same time on Saturday in Celtic Park.
Derry’s triumph last weekend against Donegal has them two ahead of Roscommon but, despite having zero points to show for their efforts in 2021, the latter can retain their Division 2B status with a win of any description.
Derry will be disappointed to find themselves in this position, having competed in the divisional final in the previous two seasons. A 0-21 to 1-16 reversal at the hands of Mayo on the opening weekend of the league left them playing catch-up and despite being nip and tuck with Kildare in the early stages of their third round meeting, they eventually fell to a 15-point defeat (5-17 to 1-14).
There were signs of quality in these displays, with Cormac O’Doherty registering 11 points in the Mayo game and Brian Cassidy grabbing a superb 1-7 (including two points from sidelines) in their subsequent clash with Kildare.
The Oak Leaf had found it difficult to readjust following the resumption of inter-county hurling last October, but their 3-22 to 3-21 win over Donegal last Sunday will be a big boost for them heading into the Christy Ring Cup. O’Doherty finished with 0-13 to his name in that nail-biting affair, which brought their counterparts’ own promotion hopes to an end.
Cassidy, Sé McGuigan and John Mullan all raised green flags at Ballinascreen to lift the spirits within their ranks.
If Roscommon are to finally open their account for the year, they will need to first overcome the morale-sapping nature of their loss to Kildare. With the notable exceptions of Cathal Dolan and Ben McGahon, Johnny Keane’s outfit were comfortably second best in virtually ever position on the field.
Still, the Rossies can take some solace from the fact that their best performance of the campaign so far has been on the road. At the end of their first round tie against Donegal in Letterkenny, they were just two points in arrears.
The O’Donnell County have shown themselves - outside of their tussle with Kildare - to be no pushovers, so the Connacht side can’t be disregarded. At the same time, the 1-11 Roscommon clocked in the Donegal game is the lowest total from their three fixtures in the division and their average scoring tally of 12 points will need to be substantially increased given the potential firepower of the Derry attack.
Having only earned promotion to this tier in 2019, the Rossies will be desperate to avoid dropping down to Division 3A for next year. Saturday’s trip to Derry does offer them a shot at redemption, however, and they will be doing their utmost to grasp this opportunity with both hands.