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By Daire Walsh

After being idle on the opening weekend in Division 2B of the National Hurling League, Kildare will kick-start their seasonal campaign against Donegal at St Conleth’s Park, Newbridge this Saturday (throw-in 1pm).

Expectations are high within the Leinster county for 2021, following last year’s superb triumph in the Christy Ring Cup. Former Kilkenny goalkeeper David Herity made massive strides during a previous stint as Dublin camogie manager and is looking to leave a similar imprint on the small ball code in Kildare.

Despite being newly-promoted from Division 3A, the Lilywhites are expected to be one of the main challengers for promotion in this term. While John Doran has stepped into retirement, Kildare are bolstered by the return of Coill Dubh duo Johnny Byrne and Declan Flaherty.

Within his squad of 35, Herity has a good mix of youthful exuberance and battle-hardened experience. Niall O Muineachain and Paul Divilly have been part of the set-up in Kildare for quite some time and will be aiming to make the most of what will be another unusual inter-county season.

James Burke, Jack Sheridan and Brian Byrne are some of the young guns in the panel, although they have already established themselves as capable performers in the lower tiers of hurling. Naas man Burke featured on a DCU side that reached the semi-final stage of the Fitzgibbon Cup in 2020 and didn’t look out of place alongside a host of stars from Liam McCarthy Cup counties.

While they will arrive in Newbridge as underdogs, Donegal do have the advantage of a game under their belts. Moreover, it was a successful start to the season for the Ulster men, who produced a dramatic late rally to claim the spoils against Roscommon at O’Donnell Park in Letterkenny last Sunday.

Trailing by three points at the end of normal time, Donegal looked set to fall short in their first game of the calendar year. Yet, there was to be a final twist in a low-scoring affair.

Full-forward Ronan McDermott squeezed the ball over the line from close-range to bring the sides back on level terms. All the momentum was suddenly with Donegal in an extended period of stoppage-time and thanks to unanswered points by substitute Niall Cleary and Declan Coulter, they prevailed on a final score of 1-13 to 1-11.

The northerners were Nicky Rackard Cup winners in 2020 and their never-say-die spirit continues to serve them well.

Along with Coulter, Tipperary native Davin Flynn is one to watch in this Donegal side. The latter scored 1-3 in last year’s championship final triumph - supplementing the nine-point haul of the former on the same day.

Coulter also finished the Roscommon game with a healthy tally of 0-8 to his name and Kildare will know that any indiscretions will be duly punished by the dead-ball specialist. Nevertheless, the Lilywhites are expected to send out a message of intent on Saturday.

Later on the same day at Dr Hyde Park (throw-in 2pm), Roscommon will look to bounce back from that opening round set-back when they face provincial rivals Mayo. Their opponents know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a defeat to Donegal, having lost out to the O’Donnell County in that aforementioned Nicky Rackard decider.

The Rossies had performed well for the majority of last weekend’s game in Letterkenny with Cathal Dolan’s successful penalty giving them a welcome 1-7 to 0-7 interval cushion.

Dolan was presented with a golden opportunity to repeat this feat on the resumption, but Donegal netminder Luke White turned away his latest set-piece effort. Roscommon were also defensively sound for the most of the tie, led in no small way by Darren Fallon and Seán Trundle.

They will need to be at their best again on Saturday as all bar one of Mayo’s forward line were on target in their 0-21 to 1-16 victory against Derry at MacHale Park, Castlebar last Sunday.

In his first game since returning to the panel, former inter-county footballer Keith Higgins contributed three points from full-forward - including one placed-ball strike. Joining him on the inside line was Shane Boland, who emerged as Mayo’s scorer-in-chief on the day.

He amassed a grand total of eight points to help keep their Oak Leaf counterparts at bay. Adrian Phillips, Cathal Freeman and Sean Regan formed a potent half-forward line, with all three of them coming away with 0-2 apiece.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t a perfect performance and team manager Derek Walsh would have been concerned to see his charges clocking 13 wides in the opening period alone. Still, he can take great comfort from the steely resolve they displayed in a nail-biting end to the contest.

Derry twice brought the gap down to a single point with the final whistle approaching, courtesy of points from Cormac Doherty and Gerald Bradley. In both instances, Mayo were able to respond with Boland and Brian Hunt splitting the posts to make it a winning start to Division 2B.

Whenever these sides meet, there is usually very little to separate them. With Sligo and Leitrim also enjoying success in recent years, a healthy competition is developing to see who is the best hurling county outside of Galway in the west.

As there are five teams in this division, one side has to be left to their own devices in a given round. It is Derry’s turn this weekend and they will hope an extra period of recovery can be beneficial towards their prospects in the 2021 league.

While they pushed Mayo to the wire in their opening game of the year, there was something of an over-reliance on Doherty for scores. He finished with 0-11 from their final total of 1-16 and a greater spread will be needed when they meet Kildare in Newbridge on May 23.

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