By Daire Walsh
It promises to be a busy opening round of National Hurling League Division 2A action on Sunday, with six sides leaving several months of uncertainty behind them by kick-starting their respective 2021 campaigns.
First up at 1pm in Austin Stack Park, Tralee is the clash between Kerry and Down – the Ulster men having gained promotion from last year’s Division 2B.
Later at 2pm, Meath will welcome Offaly to Páirc Tailteann in Navan. At the same time in Netwatch Cullen Park, Carlow come face-to-face with Wicklow.
Naturally, the exploits of Offaly in this division will be the subject of intense scrutiny. Previously a hurling powerhouse (they won four All-Ireland senior titles between 1981 and 1998), the Faithful have fallen down the pecking order in recent years.
Former Kilkenny midfielder Michael Fennelly was handed the reins of the side in 2020 but, despite considerable optimism around the camp, they fell short in their quests for league and championship glory. A record of three wins, one draw and one defeat gave them a third-place finish in Division 2A and this was followed by an historic penalty shootout reversal to Down in the semi-final of the Christy Ring Cup.
Their exit from the latter was somewhat cruel – and having to concede an opening round game to eventual champions Kildare due to a Covid outbreak within their ranks didn’t help either – but the season was nonetheless viewed as a massive underachievement.
Offaly GAA as a whole did receive a timely boost with the recent news that Shane Lowry was to become a major sponsor of the county and while this won’t reverse the fortunes of their senior hurlers straight away, it is an encouraging off-field development for the Faithful.
Fennelly has spoken about having a 3-5 year plan for Offaly, with his focus very much being on the development of young players. True to his word, he has added a number of new faces to his 36-man squad for the new year.
The scoring prowess of Eoghan Cahill was one of the principle highlights of their 2020 journey, with the Birr man twice contributing 0-17 in a single name. At 24 he remains one of the young guns within the Offaly set-up, but the likes of Brian Watkins, Shane Kinsella, Damien Egan and Shane Dooley bring considerable experience to their squad.
Dooley will be entering into his 15th season as an inter-county hurler and will be hoping to make it one to remember.
In the past when Offaly faced Meath in a competitive game, the former were expected to prevail with minimal fuss. In modern times, the Royals don’t come into this fixture with the same level of fear and will be competing a tier above them in the championship for a second year in succession.
The absence of relegation means Meath will once again feature in the Joe McDonagh Cup, despite losing all four of their games in 2020. Offaly’s demotion to the Christy Ring Cup in 2019 coincided with Meath earning top honours in hurling’s third-tier championship during the same calendar year.
Offaly did have the upper hand when the sides met at St Patrick’s Park, Birr in January 2020, but they were made to work for their 0-26 to 1-21 triumph
While Nick Weir and David Reilly remain involved with Meath in their respective roles as manager and coach, there are three new additions to the Royals’ backroom team. As well as ex-Meath star Steven Clynch, Tipperary natives Johnny Enright and Timmy Hammersley (an All-Ireland winner with the Premier County in 2010, who briefly lined out for Meath in 2016) are also on board.
Padraig O’Hanrahan and Jack Regan were amongst their strongest performers in 2020 and are expected to lead the way in the coming weeks and months.
Kerry are a county that have been knocking on the door for quite some time and were perilously close to joining the top table for 2021. Following a three-point defeat to Antrim in last year’s Division 2A final – held in October, several months on from their previous league outing – they were just two points adrift to the same county in the Joe McDonagh Cup final two months later.
Shane Conway was the heart of both challenges, amassing a combined tally of 1-23 across the two finals. A Fitzgibbon Cup winner with UCC in the spring of 2020, he is the kind of player who would feel at home in most top-tier county teams.
Last year saw Kerry operating a level above Down in both league and championship. That has now changed, with the Mourne County’s Division 2B success and their qualification for the 2020 Christy Ring Cup decider ensuring they will lock horns with the Kingdom on more than one occasion in the coming year.
In their Christy Ring showpiece defeat to Kildare, Oisín MacManus, Pearse Óg McCrickard and Tim Prenter could all emerge with their heads held high after contributing multiple scores to Down’s final tally of 0-22. There has always been a strong tradition of hurling within Down – in spite of their footballers’ much-lauded achievements – and they will be hell-bent on showing the small ball is alive and well.
On paper at least, Carlow will be viewed as hot favourites to overcome Wicklow this Sunday and will also have designs on promotion back to Division One of the National Hurling League. The Barrowsiders were up against high-caliber opposition in last year’s top section – namely Clare, Wexford, Kilkenny, Dublin and even their near neighbours Laois.
A narrow defeat to the O’Moore County pitted them against Westmeath in a relegation play-off – played shortly before Ireland went into lockdown – with a 1-17 to 2-8 reversal consigning them to Division 2A for 2021.
Wicklow had just one win to their name in Division 2A, but that 1-16 to 1-13 victory against Mayo was enough to keep them safe for another year. Both counties also had mixed campaigns in their respective championships.
Carlow finished fourth in the Joe McDonagh Cup, despite playing out a thrilling draw with ultimate winners Antrim and losing by just two points to finalists Kerry. In the Christy Ring Cup, Wicklow squeezed past Roscommon in the opening round, before bowing out to Kildare in the next phase.
Carlow are under new management in 2021, with Kilkenny native Tom Mullally taking over from Conal Bonnar. Mullally will be joined in the set-up by his brother Paddy, an All-Ireland winner with the Cats as a player.
Marty Kavanagh was their standout player throughout 2020, scoring 1-35 in Division One of the NHL and 1-31 across four games in the Joe McDonagh Cup. They will be banking on home comforts this weekend and thus setting themselves up for a successful campaign.
Managed by Éamonn Scallan – an All-Ireland winner with Wexford in 1996 – Wicklow have added a marquee name to their coaching team for 2021. An eight-time Liam McCarthy Cup champion and two-time All Star, Eoin Larkin is the latest former Kilkenny star to take up a backroom role on the inter-county scene.
It will be intriguing to see what strides they can make together with the Garden County. Corner-forward Andy O’Brien was the main man for the Leinster men in spring 2020 – his haul of 2-41 helping to keep them in Division 2A for the new campaign.
It was the turn of Christy Moorehouse come championship time, with the Bray Emmet’s attacker registering a 2-9 haul in their Christy Ring win over Roscommon. Out of their final tally of 1-10 in their second round exit to Kildare, Moorehouse came away with a respectable total of nine points.
Such heroics will be needed again as Wicklow aim to make steady progress in 2020. This weekend’s visit to Carlow town will be a good litmus test of where they are as a panel.