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Saturday 20 July 2019

Do-or-die for hurlers after defeat

GAA Christy Ring Cup Round 2: Down 2-25 Wicklow 2-19

Eoghan Byrne of Wicklow in full flight. Photos: Joe Byrne
Eoghan Byrne of Wicklow in full flight. Photos: Joe Byrne

Brendan Lawrence

Wicklow's trip to Owenbeg to face Derry in the third round of the Christy Ring Cup on June 1 will be a do or die battle for the chance to progress to the knock out stages of this year's second tier competition following Eamonn Scallan's men's defeat to Down in Aughrim last Saturday afternoon.

It was Ronan Sheehan's side second smash and grab visit to the Garden County this year and the Down men were full value for the victory after a performance overflowing with hunger, desire and hurling ability saw them bounce back from their opening day defeat to Derry.

The Oak Leaf men made it two wins from two thanks to a 0-20 to 1-14 toppling of Donegal in Owenbeg at the same time as Down were ruthlessly filleting the Wicklow defence in Aughrim and they now sit atop the Group 1 table with Down in second and Wicklow third based on Down's superior score difference.

Derry's failure to raise a green flag against a vulnerable Donegal defence suggests a somewhat limited attack that an improved Wicklow defence should cope with, while Wicklow's scoring of 2-19 against Down will give Eamonn Scallan's men hope for the journey north where victory is an absolute must considering Down travel to Letterkenny for what should be a straightforward win.

Between now and June 1 there is much work to do for the Wicklow hurlers, however.

This meeting with Derry will be Wicklow's third this year, having beaten them in the league and league final so there will be plenty of familiarity between the sides although it is also a very different landscape now compared to that of the league decider in Iniskeen.

The departure from the panel and subsequent return of Andy O'Brien was an unwelcome distraction in the last two weeks but the Pat's man's input when he was called upon after 20 minutes of battle in Aughrim last Saturday shows what he offers this team. Even if he's not raising green flags, he is giving full-back lines plenty to think about and providing all goes well in the training camp between now and the Derry game, O'Brien will start in Owenbeg.

The concession of 2-25 has to be a huge source of concern for the Wicklow management.

The dominance of the Down half-back line and their feeding of their forwards with a healthy supply of ball throughout this game caused much of the damage in Aughrim and this is an area that will require significant improvement before the ball is thrown in against the Derry men.

Such a high tally suggests that the defence is where the most remedial work is required but that is not the full story.

The loss of Warren Kavanagh just before half-time was a big blow for Scallan's men and while Ronan Byrne looked useful as his replacement, Kavanagh's experience and natural hurling ability were sorely missed.

Wicklow were playing second fiddle to Down for much of this game. The visitors were by far the hungrier around the breaking ball and hunted and harassed with impressive force and might have been much further ahead at the break than their 0-15 to 0-11 advantage had they taken their full collection of chances.

Eamonn Scallan kept faith with Eoghan Byrne at centre half forward after a decent showing from the Tinahely man in Letterkenny.

However, against a seasoned Down centre half back like John McManus and the fast pace of this Christy Ring Cup clash, very little would stick for Byrne and Andy O'Brien was sent in after 25 minutes with Wicklow down by 0-10 to 0-5.

The opening quarter was reasonably even. It was point for point in the early stages, full-forward Eoghan Sands swung over a beauty from near the sideline on the bank side to get the show up and running. The Portaferry man would give Billy Cuddihy a tough workout.

Christy Moorehouse responded before Paul Sheehan replied and then a ball from Ronan Keddy was collected and deposited over the bar by the very promising Gary Hughes to level matters early on.

The home side took the lead then following another Moorehouse score but a monster free from half back Marc Fisher cancelled out that advantage in what would be the only time that Wicklow would be in front for the remainder of the encounter.

Wicklow boss Eamonn Scallan says that the management team would have to accept criticism for instructing their half backs not to push up on the Down puckout in that opening half.

The move afforded to the Down men too much space and time to spray ball around the field.

By the 18th minute Down led by double scores at 0-8 to 0-4 and at 0-10 to 0-5 Wicklow were given a double boost with Andy O'Brien entering the fray at full-forward and Down's Paul Sheehan going off injured.

Wicklow reacted well to these happenings. Danny Staunton cut over a wonderful sideline and then Ronan Keddy split the posts with two points to close the gap to two.

That mini revival was brought to an end by Down upping their game and they three scores on the trot to make it 0-13 to 0-8.

Moorehouse, Hughes and O'Brien contracted the gap back to two at 0-13 to 0-11 but two frees from the hughely impressive Oisin McManus sent Down in leading by 0-15 to 0-11 with Wicklow turning around with the slight wind at their backs and shooting towards the village end for the second half.

Eamonn Scallan's men enjoyed a super start when Andy O'Brien was dragged down in the square and Christy Moorhouse drove a rocket to the bottom corner of the Down net to bring the gap back to a point.

The sides were level moments later when Andy O'Brien swung over a free but two wides for the home side deflated the Wicklow surge and gave Down room for maneuver and Ronan Sheehan's side retalliated with 1-2, the goal from Daithi Sands after he was picked out by Eoghan Sands to make it 1-17 to 1-12.

Wicklow's recovery was admirable. A Moorehouse free, Gary Hughes and Enda Donohoe from play and an Andy O'Brien free saw Wicklow close to three with MacManus and Daithi Sands increasing Down's tally to leave the score reading 1-19 to 1-16 after 58 minutes of hectic action.

Down's ability to put three and four scores together on the trot was a key aspect to their play.

Their passing was exceptional, and their support play gave them options that put the Wicklow defence under all sorts of pressure at times.

They rattled off four more points through Danny Toner, MacManus (2) and midfielder Liam Savage before Jonathan O'Neill Jnr fired home a sweet goal after a long ball from Glenealy club mate Gary Byrne to make it 1-23 to 2-16 with six to go.

Points were exchanged between MacManus (free) and Wicklow substitute Michael Boland before the hammer blow of Down's second goal arrived when a diagonal ball fond PJ Davidson who sent a ball across to former Down minor footballer Tim Prenter who lashed home past McNally in the Wicklow goal to make it 2-25 to 2-18.

Wicklow would raise one more white flag, that from Enda Donohue, but their goose was well and truly cooked after a scintillating Down performance.

Wicklow will need major improvements ahead of the trip north to Derry. The Oak Leaf men will be hunting for revenge following the league final defeat in Iniskeen and will pose a serious threat to Eamonn Scallan's championship hopes.

There were significant positives from this display for the Garden County men. Conor McNally proved utterly dependable under the high ball and harvesting 2-19 would win plenty of matches so all is certainly not lost when it comes to this approaching showdown with Derry in Owenbeg.

It was the failure to get to breaking ball and the allowing of a healthy feed of ball into a hungry attack that was the undoing of the Wicklow men in Aughrim.

The real positive is that there is the potential for improvement.

Scorers - Wicklow: Christy Moorehouse 1-5 (2f, 1p), Gary Hughes 0-4, Andy O'Brien 0-4 (2f), Jonathan O'Neill Jnr 1-0, Ronan Keddy 0-2, Enda Donohoe 0-2, Michael Boland 0-1, Danny Staunton 0-1 (sl). Down: Oisin McManus 0-10 (6f), Tim Prenter 1-2, Daithi Sands 1-1, Paul Sheehan 0-4 (1f), Eoghan Sands 0-3, Danny Toner 0-2, Phelim Savage 0-1, Liam Savage 0-1, Marc Fisher 0-1.

Wicklow: Conor McNally; Warren Kavanagh, Billy Cuddihy, Martin O'Brien; Gary Byrne, Stephen Kelly, Eamonn Kearns; John Henderson, Jack Doyle; Eoin McCormack, Eoghan Byrne, Ronan Keddy; Christy Moorehouse, Danny Staunton, Gary Hughes. Subs: Andy O'Brien for E Byrne, Ronan Byrne for W Kavanagh, Michael Boland for E McCormack, Enda Donohoe for B Cuddihy, Jonathan O'Neill Jnr for C Moorehouse.

Down: Stephen Keith; Tom Murray, Caolan Taggart, Darragh Mallon; Marc Fisher, John McManus, Mark Patterson; Liam Savage, Phelim Savage; Danny Toner, Paul Sheehan, Tim Prenter; Daithi Sands, Eoghan Sands, Oisin McManus. Subs: Gerard Hughes for D Mallon, Paddy Branagan for T Prenter.

Referee: Kevin Brady (Louth).

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