Down prove dominant over hurlers
Allianz NHL Division 2B: Down 1-23 Wicklow 0-15
Wicklow's Senior hurlers had a day to forget in Aughrim on Sunday afternoon when Down more or less waltzed to a 1-23 to 0-15 victory over Eamonn Scallan's side in the second round of the Allianz NHL Division 2B.
Wicklow's struggle to put Warwickshire to the sword in their opening game of the season suggested that they might be prone to attack from the stronger sides in this division and aside from a strong third quarter where the home side battled back to within four of Ronan Sheehan's outfit the Garden County men were second best in this encounter by a long shot.
One of the major issues for Wicklow is their lack of cutting edge up front and news that Andy O'Brien has returned to the camp will be most welcome although it is believed that it will be some weeks before we see the St Pat's man back in the full-forward line.
Of the 15 points scored on Sunday, only four of those came from play from the full-forward line with Carnew's Enda Donohoe enduring one of those days where absolutely nothing goes right for you before he was replaced after 28 minutes by Jack Doyle. Donohoe's reaction when he reached the Wicklow dugout highlighted how disappointed he was by his own performance and no doubt the talented attacker will look forward to a better day when they travel to face Donegal in their next encounter.
It is vital that Wicklow's attack performs in the manner they did in the third quarter in that game against Donegal. A second defeat on the trot ahead of a visit from Kildare to Aughrim on February 24 would be very damaging to this young side with the Lilywhites hammering 8-19 past Warwickshire on Saturday and seeing off Donegal by 2-16 to 1-13 in their opener.
That third quarter revival came about thanks to the displays of Christy Moorehouse, Eamonn Kearns and Danny Staunton who helped drag Wicklow from 0-13 to 0-4 down to trail by a mere four points at 0-16 to 0-12 after 15 minutes of the second half.
Alas, a strong finish from a very impressive Down side saw them charge to the finish line with Daithi Sands capping off a quality performance by tapping home to the back of Bob Fitzgerald's net after a defensive howler under a high ball by the Wicklow rearguard.
On umpteen occasions, long ball from the Wicklow half-back or midfield into the home side's attack were won by Down defenders and returned up the field with interest when the Mourne men profited with scores or by winning frees from Wicklow defenders who found themselves under serious pressure.
Down's Paul Sheehan gathered one such ball that had been won from a Wicklow attack and the sharpshooter dropped over a bomb from distance to get the scoreboard up and running in a bitterly cold but dry Aughrim.
Failure to collect a long Warren Kavanagh ball at the first attempt left Wicklow playing second fiddle with the breaking ball on the Down 21 and the visitor's worked the ball up the field where a diagonal pass gave Daithi Sands the advantage against Martin O'Brien and the Down attacker rifled over for their second score as supporters wondered what the issue was with the home side's attack.
Danny Staunton would have Wicklow's first real shot at the posts from out on the stand side after good pilfering from Enda Donohoe but the Glenealy man's effort drifted to the right of Stephen Keith's uprights.
Down's third score was almost a replica of the first two. A long Garry Byrne ball into a sparsely populated Wicklow full-forward line was cleared relatively easily by a dominant Down defence and they dispatched a long diagonal ball to Sands who endured the attentions of O'Brien before firing a rocket between the sticks from a very tight angle.
It would get worse before it got better. Points from Oisin MacManus and Conor O'Prey left Wicklow trailing by 0-5 to 0-0 after eight minutes before Wicklow finally got a lucky break when Enda Donohoe was fouled while trying to gather a long Warren Kavanagh ball and the Carnew man split the posts to get the home side up and running after nine minutes.
That momentary boost was soon forgotten as MacManus, O'Prey and Sheehan struck for points within five minutes to open up and 0-8 to 0-1 lead with Wicklow struggling terribly to make any inroads against a tuned in Down defence led by the excellent Caolan Taggart and Matthew Conlon at three and six respectively.
Worryingly, Down collected their first wide of the day a moment later at the end of the first quarter.
A Pádraig Doyle ripper from midfield and a stunning point from Michael Boland who might have had a goal had he kept his shot two feet lower gave the small Wicklow support a sliver of hope, but three more Down points extinguished that fairly lively before Christy Moorehouse bagged Wicklow's last score of the half not long after Jack Doyle had entered the fray for a frustrated O'Donohoe.
Two late points in that opening half for Down left Ronan Sheehan's men leading by 0-13 to 0-4 with any hope of a Wicklow revival looking as likely as a sudden heatwave arriving in Aughrim.
But revive the situation they did, and perhaps this is the period from which Eamonn Scallan will draw positives ahead of the Donegal game in Letterkenny.
Things started to look more positive from the restart. Christy went wide before Danny Staunton bagged a beauty from the middle of the field.
A miss from Eamonn Kearns was followed by a Moorehouse wide that was claimed as a score by the Wicklow players and then Garry Byrne watched as his long aimless ball dribbled out over the endline. Wides they might be, but at least Wicklow were getting on top in the middle third.
Wicklow's John Henderson was almost in for a goal early on but a desperate strike across him by Matthew Conlon robbed the midfielder of a proper connection on the ball and referee Thomas Walsh failed to pull Conlon up for playing Henderson's hurl.
A whopper from Eamonn Kearns was followed by a Christy Moorehouse point from a free after superb pressure from Garry Byrne, Gary Hughes and Jack Doyle on Paul Sheehan and the Down sharpshooter was blown for overcarrying.
Eamonn Scallan sent in Eoin McCormack for Pádraig Doyle as he sought to freshen up the Wicklow attack to try and rescue something from this encounter.
Points from Staunton, Kearns and three on the trot from Moorehouse (one free) left things looking much healthier from a Wicklow point of view with the scoreboard reading 0-16 to 0-12.
However, where Wicklow could battle back to within sight of the visitors, Down always seemed to have an extra gear and were always that bit hungrier in all areas of the field.
Excellent play from Billy Cuddihy allowed John Henderson an opportunity on the gallop and the Bray man obliged with a fine score to maintain a four-point gap at 0-17 to 0-13 but that would be as good as it got for the home side.
In a matter of minutes, it was 0-21 to 0-13 and although Moorehouse reduced that by a single point, a devastating 1-1, the point from Sheehan, the goal from Sands, put an end to the game as a contest and left Down facing the long journey home having bounced back superbly from their opening day defeat to Derry.
Wicklow face a huge game in Letterkenny on February 17 against Donegal who have lost their opening two games. Victory up there would give Scallan's men a major boost ahead of the clash with Kildare in Aughrim. The return of Andy O'Brien, sooner rather than later, hopefully, would also help the cause greatly. Wicklow didn't truly frighten the Down goal on Sunday. Yes, they had half chances, but they never created clear cut goal chances. O'Brien will give them that threat.
There were positives for Wicklow to take from this game especially in that third quarter but massive improvements are needed all over the field and with more hurling and more time those improvements will hopefully transpire.
Scorers - Down: Paul Sheehan 0-9 (6f), Daithi Sands 1-4, Oisin McManus 0-2, Conor O'Prey 0-3 (1f), Ruairi McCrickard 0-2 (1f), Eoghan Sands 0-1, Tom Murray 0-1, Tim Prenter 0-1.
Wicklow: Christy Moorehouse 0-6 (3f, 1 65), Danny Staunton 0-3, Eamonn Kearns 0-2, Enda Donohoe 0-1 (f), Pádraig Doyle 0-1, Michael Boland 0-1, John Henderson 0-1.
Wicklow: Bob Fitzgerald; Bryan Kearney, Billy Cuddihy, Martin O'Brien; Garry Byrne, Ronan Keddy, Warren Kavanagh; John Henderson, Peter Keane; Eamonn Kearns, Pádraig Doyle, Danny Staunton; Christy Moorehouse, Enda Donohoe, Michael Boland. Subs: Jack Doyle for E Donohoe (28), Gary Hughes for P Keane (31), Eoin McCormack for P Doyle (43), Emmet Byrne for R Keddy (60).
Down: Stephen Keith; Mark Patterson, Caolan Taggart, Conor Cassidy; Marc Fisher, Matthew Conlon, Liam Savage; Ruairi McCrickard, Tom Murray; Paul Sheehan, Conor O'Prey, Oisin MacManus; Cormac Coulter, Eoghan Sands, Daithi Sands. Subs: Tim Prenter for C Coulter (26), Cathal Coulter for M Patterson (33), Ronan Costello for O McManus (57), Phelim Savage R McCrickard (63), PJ Davidson for C O'Prey (69).
Referee: Thomas Walsh (Waterford)