Hurling and camogie

Matchbox

IN OR OUT?: Mayo's Keith Higgins looks set to line out for Mayo, but whether Cahal Carvill and his Middletown teammates return for Armagh remains to be seen Pic Philip Walsh
By Padraig Kelly

National Hurling League Division 2B

Donegal v Derry

(tomorrow, Letterkenny, 12.30pm)

IF there's something Derry fans have gotten used to in the National Hurling League, then it's winning two of their five games each season.

The Oakleaf County have been the definition of a middle of the road side with a 40 percent win rate in four of the last five seasons. The one exception came in 2016 when they lost all of their games in Division 2A.

They seem to do enough to stay out of trouble and not enough to get into the fight for promotion – and this year already has a similar feel to it.

A home opener against Down was the perfect chance to announce themselves as a force in Division 2B, especially after last year's Nicky Rackard success, but a feeble second-half performance saw them lose out by six points with Brendan Quigley grabbing a consolation goal late on to make the scoreboard a bit more respectable.

Manager Collie McGurk does deserve some slack though. Retirements, injuries and Slaughtneil's run to the All-Ireland semi-final meant that he had only four starters from the side that flattened Armagh at Croke Park last season.

Even with those absences, this is a great chance to get one of those two wins they are so fond of.

Like Derry, Donegal had an underwhelming start to the League season as they lost to Mayo by 10 points.

The Connacht side looked much more physical with Keith Higgins demonstrating that to great effect in the full-forward line as he nabbed four points.

Donegal weren't helped by Jamsie Donnelly's dismissal 10 minutes after half-time but he will be available as it was for two yellow-card offences.

New manager Mickey McCann will be hopeful that home advantage and the return of some Setanta players will have them in much better shape tomorrow.

The Ulster Junior champions had lost to Ardmore the day before the Mayo match, but Danny Cullen still started for his county while Kevin Campbell and Niall Cleary came off the bench.

Campbell will likely return to the starting 15 to give Lee Henderson a pull out in the scoring department while Declan Coulter may also be available up front.

Henderson scored 0-8 of Donegal's 1-9 tally last week so he will take any assistance he can get.

Donegal were always likely to be at the wrong end of the table after last year's promotion from 3A, but McCann will be expecting a big improvement here.

McGurk will be hoping for likewise and the visitors should have the points tucked away when making the short trip home.

Odds: H: 21/10 D: 10/1 A: 2/5

Verdict: Derry

Down v Wicklow

(tomorrow, Ballycran, 2pm)

HAVING been somewhat of a thorn in their side in recent seasons, Down can gain a modicum of revenge on Wicklow when the sides meet in a crucial clash in Ballycran tomorrow.

The breakdown in wins between the teams has been fairly even over the last few years, but the Garden county have prevailed in the crucial fixtures.

In 2014, Down eased past them in the group stage but Wicklow got the better of them in the final to earn promotion to Division 2A.

When they met in the penultimate game last year, the prize was essentially a final meeting with Meath. Wicklow emerged victors on a 0-18 to 0-11 scoreline.

The stakes are high here once again. Both teams had impressive first-round wins and whoever takes the points will be well on the road to a final spot, even at this early stage.

Down may be the underdogs but not too many teams turn them over at McKenna Park. Indeed, they have won nine of their last 10 League games at the venue with Mayo the one visiting side to escape with the points.

They will be in buoyant form after a fantastic result at Celtic Park last weekend. Derry may have been missing their Slaughtneil contingent, but they were second best for the majority of the match as the away side won 2-17 to 1-14.

Martin Mallon's side had a slow start against the breeze, but once Paul Sheehan started to find his range from frees they managed to get into their rhythm. Danny Toner hit a brilliant 2-2 from play while Rian Brannigan was a driving force in midfield. The Clonduff youngster did pick up a knock near the end and Mallon will be hoping that he is available for this clash.

Wicklow eased past a depleted Armagh last weekend and their 4-20 tally was the second highest across all six divisions last weekend.

Down's defence really stood out against Derry, but they will have to be even more alert this weekend. They have that ability to shut their opponents out though and for once the Ardsmen can prevail in a crucial meeting with Wicklow.

Odds: H: 12/5 D: 10/1 A: 4/11

Verdict: Down

Armagh v Mayo

(tomorrow, Athletic Grounds, 2pm)

THE bad news for Armagh in the lead up to their clash with Mayo is that dual star Keith Higgins looks likely to be part of the touring party.

Higgins has delayed his comeback with the footballers to refresh the batteries, but that downtime includes lining out for the hurlers.

He was one of their best players, along with Eoin McLaughlin and Sean Regan, in last week's easy win over Donegal and manager Derek Walsh expects him to be available for selection at the Athletic Grounds too.

The bigger question marks probably surround the Armagh squad and, in particular, the Middletown contingent.

The Na Fianna side saw a long club season come to an end against Kanturk in the All-Ireland Intermediate semi-final last Saturday and manager Paddy Kelly will be hoping that they are getting restless after eight days without hurling.

When all are available, Middletown would contribute roughly half of the starting team with eight making the first 15 for last year's Nicky Rackard final loss to Derry.

Without them they looked painfully short on experience in the 4-20 to 1-12 loss to Wicklow last weekend.

John Corvan, David Bridges and Aaron Fox were also unavailable meaning that Kelly had to give starts to lots of new-comers in Bray.

Youngsters like Glenn McKeown, Conleth Lavery, Odhrán McCann and Caolán Rice did perform well in trying circumstances, but Kelly will be hoping that he can add a few more familiar faces to his starting line-up tomorrow.

Odds: H: 12/5 D: 10/1 A: 4/11

Verdict: Mayo

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