Down but not out
Allianz National Hurling League Div 2B: Down 1-25 Wicklow 0-16
A sharper and more clinical Down side handed Wicklow a thumping defeat in their second Allianz National Hurling League Division 2B game on Sunday afternoon last in Ballycran.
A devastating period from the home side between the 36th and 63rd minute where they moved from a one-point lead to a 1-22 to 0-13 gap over a struggling Wicklow outfit proved to be the decisive spell in the game in terms of the result.
It was a disastrous second half from Seamus Murphy's men. They collected six points (two from frees) over those 35 minutes and didn't threaten the Down goal once, with the packed home defence dominating what poor quality ball that did arrive in from out the field.
Things had looked slightly more promising at half-time when the Garden County hurlers went in trailing the Down men by a single point at 0-11 to 0-10 after a frenetic opening 35 where Wicklow might have had three goals if different options had been taken in attack.
When looking at the overall Wicklow performance, it should be noted that the team travelled up that morning, leaving Wicklow shortly after 8am and arriving in rural Ballycran shortly after 1pm, allowing less than an hour for preparations and to shake off the inevitable weariness that comes from a long bus journey. And that heaviness did seem present in some of the legs over the course of this game.
Add in a very heavy and uncooperative sod that seemed to want to eat the ball at every opportunity, the absence of some strong hurlers in key positions, and a Down team that were hurling from a different place to Wicklow, and you might get a better explanation for the collapse in the second half.
The dominance of the Down defence is apparent when the Wicklow scoring record is perused. The full-forward line harvested a paltry six points from play, all in the first half. They were completely shut down in the second half by the dynamic trio of Brook Bryers, Caolan Teggart and Michael Hughes, Teggart making Andy O'Brien's life a misery and being helped by the chronic quality of the ball the St Pat's attacker was receiving from further out the field.
All over the field Wicklow were scrappy and disjointed and not up to the energy levels and sharpness of Martin Mallon's men whatsoever. On at least two occasions Wicklow frees became throw balls due to dissent.
In defence, Wicklow were found guilty of poor clearances, sloppy fouling (Down scored nine points from frees) and came second in plenty of tussles over the course of the 70 minutes.
There were two changes to the Wicklow starting 15 as named in the match programme on the day. Peter Keane came in for Emmet Byrne and Danny Staunton got the nod in place of Seanie Germaine. Keane moved to half-back with Warren Kavanagh dropping to the corner while Danny Staunton lined out at half-forward with McCormack joining Andy and George O'Brien in the full-forward line.
Down full-forward Paul Sheehan got us underway with a pointed free after 40 seconds before a sweet ball from Peter Keane released George O'Brien and the St Pat's man rifled over to level matters.
Down switched Danny Toner from his midfield starting berth into the full-forward line with Malachy Magee, wearing 13, stationed at midfield.
Toner, Eoghan Sands and full-forward Sheehan made Wicklow's full-back line of Warren Kavanagh, Billy Cuddihy and Martin O'Brien work their socks off in this game, with Sands grabbing the game's only goal after 49 minutes to drive a dagger into the heart of the faltering Wicklow challenge. An effort at a point came off the Wicklow upright and Sands was on hand to collect the ball and fire home past Martin O'Brien and Bob Fitzgerald.
The deployment of Warren Kavanagh at corner-back was an interesting one. The Glenealy man was busy and worked hard but his influence on the game was not what it might have been from a more central role.
Obviously, the need to try and curtail Danny Toner's influence on the game was the reason for Kavanagh's positioning there, but it speaks volumes as to the lack of fitting candidates to do such a man marking role within the Wicklow camp if one of the best central defenders in the county is restricted to just such a job.
Wicklow took a brief lead when Andy O'Brien profited from a well-placed Garry Byrne ball from midfield and a slip from the tight-marking Caolan Teggart to lash home a fine effort after four minutes.
But Down were looking very sharp. Even physically, despite numerous onlookers describing this Down team as smaller than previous teams from the Mourne County, they looked more defined and far more set for battle than some of the Wicklow squad.
Seamus Murphy's men were guilty of some poor clearances on the day and just such an error coughed up Down's second point, this one from Malachy Magee which was followed promptly by a fine effort from the excellent Rian Branagan who formed part of a very industrious and troublesome half-forward line that made life very difficult for Gary Byrne, John Henderson and Peter Keane.
It was pretty much nip and tuck right the whole way through the opening half with Andy O'Brien tapping over frees won by the likes of Danny Staunton, who worked hard throughout this game, and Eoin McCormack, and with the Pat's man also grabbing some very decent scores from play along with a second from George O'Brien. For Down, Pearse Óg McCrickard split Bob Fitzgerald's posts on several occasions while Paul Sheehan (free), Malachy Magee, Rian Branagan and Danny Toner all contributed handsomely to their narrow but deserving one-point lead at the break.
As mentioned before, Wicklow did have some sniffs at goal chances. The first arrived when midfielder John Connors rampaged down on the home goal. Sensing he might be hooked by the retreating John McManus, Connors flicked the ball out to George O'Brien who was half smothered by Brook Bryers but the Pat's man still managed to split the posts for a point. Had Connors backed himself he might have had a go himself.
Their second goal chance presented itself when Danny Staunton caught a long ball from Padraig Doyle and turned his man superbly and bore down on goal with Andy O'Brien offering his services alongside. Staunton could have gone for the goal himself but chose unselfishly to lay off the pass but it was slightly behind O'Brien who had to check his run and this allowed a Down defender to get back and flick the ball away.
The third Wicklow goal chance arrived when Danny Staunton sent a long ball down on top of Andy O'Brien and Teggart with the Pat's man knocking the ball down in front of him.
He eventually, with the help of Eoin McCormack, managed to gather possession and, having shaken off Michael Hughes, he had two choices, go for the goal from a tight angle with Teggard trying to block or feed McCormack with a neat pass after the Bray man had slipped into an unmarked position in the square. O'Brien chose the former and rifled off a wicked shot, but Stephen Kitt in the Down goal made a tremendous save at the cost of a point from an effort that looked certain to be heading for the roof of his net.
At 0-11 to 0-10 behind at the break you couldn't write Wicklow off but you wouldn't have been surprised had a number of changes been made when the teams emerged.
Christy Moorehouse Jnr had been introduced after 30 minutes for midfielder John Connors but when the team emerged they were as they had left the field.
Wicklow started well. Padraig Doyle swung over a lovely score but this was answered by his opposite number Pearse Óg McCrickard.
An Andy O'Brien coverted free tied things up at 0-12 apiece with six gone in the second half but Down rattled off two quick points from two frees, one from full-forward Sheehan, the second a monster from centre half-back Mark Fisher, one of four points he would score, all from mighty distances, three from free.
With 11 minutes on the clock, you got the feeling that Wicklow needed something, probably a goal if they were going to maintain a meaningful presence in this game. However, you just couldn't see where that burst was going to come from.
Christy Moorehouse Jnr fired over a sweet score to make it 0-14 to 0-13 for Down and from here Wicklow totally capitulated.
Down added 1-08 without reply over the next 27 minutes to leave the score reading 1-22 to 0-3 before Andy O'Brien fired over a free to stop the horrendous rot. Down's goal arrived in the 14th minute and sickened the Wicklow challenge and exposed a real vulnerability in defence that will need urgent rectifying.
Gerry Connors and Gary Byrne completed the scoring for Wicklow while Down popped over some lovely scores on a day when everything that could go right for them did just that.
A chance for a morale boosting win in the Kehoe Cup final lies ahead this weekend for Seamus Murphy's men although the trip to Longford on Sunday is not without its perils as none of the match day squad from the Walsh Cup clash with Wexford can play. However, if some of the Senior players who were unavailable for that game in Ashford are back in contention then a Wicklow win would be very possible.
Essentially, what Sunday's result means for Wicklow is that they cannot really afford another slip in their remaining league games if a league final is to be their destination. Donegal come to Aughrim following a shock win over Derry at the weekend. Then it's Derry at home before the long road west to take on Mayo in Ballina to wrap things up in the league section.
Massive improvements in terms of hurling and morale and spirit will be needed in the short-term if a league final berth is to be secured.
Scorers - Down: Pearse Óg McCrickard 0-06 (3f), Mark Fisher 0-04 (3f), Eoghan Sands 1-01, Danny Toner 0-04, Paul Sheehan 0-03 (3f), Malachy Magee 0-03, Rian Branagan 0-03, Daithi Sands 0-01. Wicklow: Andy O'Brien 0-10 (6f), George O'Brien 0-02, Padraig Doyle 0-01, Christy Moorehouse Jnr 0-01, Gerry Connors 0-01, Gary Byrne 0-01.
Wicklow: Bob Fitzgerald; Warren Kavanagh, Billy Cuddihy, Martin O'Brien; Gary Byrne, John Henderson, Peter Keane; John Connors, Stephen Kelly; Danny Staunton, Anto Byrne, Padraig Doyle; Eoin McCormack, Andy O'Brien, George 'Bee' O'Brien. Subs: Christy Moorehouse Jnr for J Connors (30min), Jamie Byrne for E McCormack (43min), Gerry Connors for A Byrne (44min), Christy Moorehouse Snr for G O'Brien (51min).
Down: Stephen Keith; Brook Bryers, Caolan Teggart, Michael Hughes; John McManus, Mark Fisher, Liam Savage; Caolan Bailie, Danny Toner; Rian Branagan, Delcan McManus, Pearse Óg McCrickard; Malachy Magee, Paul Sheehan, Eoghan Sands. Subs: Daithi Sands for P Sheehan (45min), Eoin Coulter for L Savage (70min).
Ref: James Connors (Donegal).