JOHN Meyler's Kerry hurling revolution suffered a serious set-back at the hands of Wicklow in last weekend's Christy Ring Cup opener.
WICKLOW 2-20 KERRY 2-15
Inspired by the performances of their lethal inside forwards Andy O'brien and Jonathan O'neill, the side Kerry had vanquished by significant margins twice in the space of the last twelve months, struck back with a vengance against the Kingdom in Arklow. Being groomed for eventually participating in the Munster championship, John Meyler's men were quitely confident that they would make it three wins on-the-trot over the Garden County and many other pundits were in agreement.
Wicklow, however, have been a steadily improving hurling side under Casey O'brien and on Saturday they showed once again that they are no push-over for any team in either Division 2A league or the Christy Ring with the commanding power and quality of their hurling these days. Kerry were given a dream start with a goal gifted to them and wing-forward scorer Mickey Boyle after just two minutes, but when the chips were down and character was needed the Wicklow players showed the steel in their spine.
Even though the visitors were causing Wicklow some anxiety in some areas, the Garden County hurled with great bravery, resolve and spirit, putting their opponents under pressure all over the field, and in the end were fully deserving of their five points win. And it was the dynamic pair of inside strikers – corner-forward Andy O'brien and full-forward Jonathan O'neill – who delivered the killer knockout blows to Kerry with their marvellous feats of scoring as they racked up a hugely impressive 1-16 between them.
Right from the off Kerry were on the back foot. Just minutes into the game Bernard Rochford was picking the ball out of his net. Mikey Boyle's subsequent goal did level matters, but the Andy O'brien, Jonathon O'neill combo proved irrestible.
O'neill and Kerry's danger man, corner-forward Shane Brick, exchanged points. Midfielder Eamonn Kearns, who had another outstanding game for Wicklow, and Bosco put Wicklow two points up, but again Kerry cancelled the lead out with scores by Shane Nolan and Darragh O'connell. On 26 minutes Jonathan O'neill floated another line-ball into the danger area and this time it was centre-forward Wayne O'gorman got the final touch to tease the sliothar over the goal line. Wicklow were ahead 2-4 to 1-4 and in the driving seat.
At the other end Wicklow's full-back line of Jim Connors, Graham Keogh and Billy Cuddihy had found the antidote to counter much of the string in Kerry's corner-forwards Shane Brick and Shane Nolan at the start. Ronan Keddy joined his midfield partner Kearns on the scoresheet as they again struck up an effective partnership in the centre of the park. And when the short
whistle was sounded by Carlow referee David Hughes, Wicklow retired for the break with a two goal cushion, 2-9 to 1-6, at their back.
John Meyler, the Kerry maestro, was not a happy camper though. By now they knew they had a battle on their hands. And we knew that they were going to fire everything at us in the second half, but the Wicklow players stood tall and firm to a man, there was no slackening in their resolve or resilience. O'neill set down a marker from the restart as pointed a 90 yard free and thereafter we matched the Kerry men score for score.
Kerry were feeling the pressure at every turn and coughed up frees that O'neill unerringly pointed. Kerry's centre-forward and former Kilkenny cat Willie O'brien hit a flurry of three rapid fire points for Kerry midway through the second half, but this was nothing more than the dying sparkle of a fallen star. Throughout the game his threat was snuffed out by Stephen 'Chester' Kelly who was simply superb as the anchor man of the Wicklow defence.
For much of the second half Wicklow's lead hovered between a comforting six or seven points. With eight minutes to play Kerry probably felt that they had got the break-through they needed when Shane Nolan bagged their second goal after three Wicklow defenders botched their attempts to clear their lines, but Casey O'brien's men held their nerve; they were and are made of sterner stuff. Redoubling their efforts, they forced Kerry to concede two frees under pressure and O'neill drove the stake straight through the heart.
Saturday proved that despite their victory in last year's competition, there are no easy pickings in Christy Ring even for then and that every match is going to have to be won the hard way. Kerry need to get their act together and fast. A defeat next weekend against Kildare and they're out of the competition. WICKLOW: Joe Murphy, Jim Connors, Graham Keogh, Billy Cuddihy, John Henderson, Stephen Kelly, Geoffrey Bermingham, Eamonn Kearns (0-2), Ronan Keddy (0-1), Thomas Doyle, Wayne O'gorman (1-0), Eugene Dunne, Enan Glynn, Jonathan O'neill (0-11, 8f), Andy O'brien (15) Sub: Christy Moorehouse (0-1) for W. O'gorman. KERRY: Bernard Rochford, James Godley, Tom Murnane, Rory Horgan, Ally O'connor, Paud Costello, Liam Boyle, Darren Dineen, John Griffin, Michael Boyle (1-1), Willie O'dwyer (0-3), Darragh O'connell (0-4, 1f), Shane Brick (0-4, 3f), Padraig Boyle, Shane Nolan (1-3) Sub: James Flaherty for P Boyle REFEREE: David Hughes (Carlow)