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By Daire Walsh

Mayo and Kildare will aim to build on their impressive starts to Division 2B of the National Hurling League when they face Donegal and Derry respectively on Sunday afternoon.

Taking place in O’Donnell Park, Letterkenny at 2pm, the clash between Mayo and Donegal is a rematch of last November’s Nicky Rackard Cup decider. On that occasion, the goal-hungry Ulster men triumphed on a final scoreline of 3-18 to 0-21.

David Flynn, Joe Boyle and Ritchie Ryan all raised green flags to give Donegal their third title at that particular grade. Shane Boland was scorer-in-chief for the green and red with a final tally of 0-11, but Derek Walsh’s charges ultimately fell short in their quest for a second Nicky Rackard crown (their sole final victory to date coming in 2016).

Understandably, Mayo will be eager to make amends for this disappointment in 2021 and are going the right way about it thus far. Heading into Sunday’s game, the Connacht side find themselves at the summit of the third-tier table courtesy of back-to-back successes over Derry and Roscommon.

Whereas they were forced to dig deep before earning a two-point win (0-21 to 1-16) at the expense of the former on the opening weekend of the new inter-county season, the Rossies were put to the sword in consummate style at Dr Hyde Park last Saturday. A convincing 1-20 to 1-9 triumph presented the visitors with not only the two league points on offer, but provincial bragging rights as well.

Boland has amassed a combined tally of 12 points over the course of these two games, but he isn’t solely burdened with free-taking responsibilities this year. Despite bringing an end to his time with the Mayo footballers, Keith Higgins has opted to line out for the county’s hurlers in 2021.

In addition to contributing 1-2 from play, he has converted three ’65’s and two frees in the current campaign. Goalkeeper Gerard Kelly also got in on the act as he split the uprights off a long-distance placed ball against Roscommon.

In the previous showdown with Derry, he also knocked over a spectacular point from play after executing a one-two off a short puck-out.

This weekends hurling action is brought to you by Star Hurley. Star Hurley are operating from Jenkinstown, Co. Kilkenny. Star Hurley produce hand made hurls made to the wishes of each individual. They can be contacted by phone (0834347775), or on social media via Facebook or Instagram.

Despite coming off second best to the O’Donnell County in their most recent meeting, Mayo will arguably be the more confident of the two sides in advance of this weekend’s contest.

Division 3A champions in 2020, Donegal received a baptism of fire away to Kildare at St Conleth’s Park, Newbridge last Saturday. In the end, all of 27 points separated the teams (4-29 to 0-14), with the visiting northerners struggling to curtail the pace, power and fitness levels of the Lilywhites.

The likes of Declan Coulter (0-7), Danny Cullen and Ciaran Mathewson (0-3 each) did their best to keep Mickey McCann’s outfit in contention, but it was all in vain. This triumvirate will need to be on their games on Sunday - and hope that others can join them in stepping up to the plate - if they are to get their campaign on the right track.

Although tougher tests will lie ahead for Kildare - particularly when their Joe McDonagh Cup odyssey gets underway later in the summer - but David Herity’s side did what they had to do in their first outing of the new year. Idle for the opening weekend of a five-team division - it is Roscommon’s turn to receive a bye this week - the Lilywhites displayed no signs of rustiness as they expertly put Donegal to the sword.

Like Higgins, Johnny Byrne is returning to the small ball game after announcing his retirement from inter-county football at the end of last year. Jack O’Connor’s loss looks like being Herity’s gain as he chipped in with 1-3 from centre-forward as part of an excellent all-round display.

His Coill Dubh team-mate Declan Flaherty has also returned and he offers Kildare a steely presence at centre half-back. Further up the field, Paul Divilly served notice of his enduring quality with a three-point haul from midfield.

Brian Byrne (0-11) and James Burke (2-1) were in excellent scoring form for the hosts, while Kevin Aherne finished the tie with three points to his name.

As part of a batch of new rules implemented by the GAA for this year’s league, managers are now allowed to introduce seven permanent substitutes. This is something Herity exploited to the max on Saturday, with James Dolan’s brief appearance as a blood replacement meaning the former Kilkenny custodian was able to use 23 of his panel.

They made quite the impression on the proceedings, with 1-7 accumulated in total between the Kildare reserves. Conor Dowling (1-1) and Caolan Smith (0-3) led the way, but Sean Whelan (0-2) and Conor Kielty (0-1) can also be pleased with their contributions.

Herity will need his wider squad again this week as Derry are set to be a massive step-up from the challenge posed by Donegal. In the last two seasons, Kildare haven’t been able to get the better of the Oak Leaf - a narrow home defeat in 2019 followed by a stalemate in Owenbeg 12 months later.

Derry have been defeated in the past two Division 2B finals, but with no divisional decider taking place in 2021, all they have to do is finish in top spot. Even though their reversal to Mayo leaves them with ground to make up, a win on Sunday will give them every chance of doing so.

While the meeting of these sides took place at St Conleth’s Park two years ago, this tussle will instead be held at the Kildare Centre of Excellence at 4pm on Sunday. This is due to the fact that the Lilies are facing Clare in the National Football League at 2pm on the same day in the main county grounds.

Because of strict COVID guidelines, it isn’t possible to host a double-header with such a short space of time between the end of one match and the beginning of the next.

It remains to be seen if this will make any major difference - Hawkfield is the main training base for Kildare - but a tight affair is anticipated regardless of the venue.

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