Allianz Hurling League Division 2B final: Derry v Wicklow (tomorrow, Inniskeen, 2pm)
AFTER fluffing their lines in the dress rehearsal, Derry need starring roles all over the pitch to turn the tables on Wicklow when Division 2B’s top dogs meet again in tomorrow’s decider.
Allegations of north-south ‘sledging’ have flared up in the aftermath of last weekend’s meeting which finished 2-16 to 0-16 in the Garden County’s favour thanks to a first half goal from Andy O’Brien who was later sent off. Another goal near the finish from Eoin McCormack eased Wicklow nerves and meant both teams finished level on eight points and the Leinster men took top spot on head-to-head.
That setback aside, Derry’s form this year has been a contrast to their struggles last season when the side lurched from defeat to defeat and needed to win a relegation play-off battle with Armagh to avoid relegation.
Like Wicklow, the Oak Leafers went on to reach the semi-finals of last year’s Christy Ring Cup and, with new manager John McEvoy replacing Collie McGurk at the helm, they began their 2019 campaign by seeing off Down, Donegal, Kildare and Warwickshire.
Losing to Wicklow last weekend could have proved costly for Derry had Down (winners when they travelled to Wicklow in early February) beaten Kildare and forced a three-way tie at the top of the table but the Lilywhites won by four points and that kept the Ardsmen out of the equation.
Derry’s team last weekend showed just two changes to the side that had ground out a 2-18 to 3-11 win over a Warwickshire outfit that has been regularly hammered this season and manager McEvoy pulled no punches afterwards with an honest assessment of his team’s performance.
“We went out and we didn’t play well,” he said.
“We didn’t support each other but we stuck in there which was good.
“They were far, far more effective than us in the way they were hurling and their patterns of hurling than we were in the first half.”
McEvoy – the former Dublin U21 team manager – did take some comfort from his side’s gutsy performance in the second half at Ballinascreen. Derry trailed by eight points at the interval but hit four points in succession and, with 17 minutes remaining, had the gap down to four and were threatening a grandstand finish.
They carved out three goal chances but all three were kept out by desperate Wicklow defending and the second goal from McCormack killed off any chance of a comeback win.
McEvoy will hope his side produce the energy and intensity they showed in the second half from the start tomorrow.
“Our second half was a good bit better,” he said.
“But we have a mountain of work to do for next weekend.”
Although these counties have avoided each other in championship action, they are regular foes in the League and will know each other well.
Last Sunday’s win meant Wicklow now have three victories on-the-trot against Derry and they will have been encouraged by their all-round team performance in Ballinascreen last weekend. Eight players scored while Derry relied on Richie Mullan for the bulk of theirs.
Dual player Brendan Rogers – full-back in the Derry footballers’ winning effort against Wicklow last month - has returned to the fold and the presence of the Slaughtneil star would be a timely boost to his county’s chances.
The allegations from last weekend are likely to add an extra edge to tomorrow’s game and if Derry can produce a 70-minute performance they may not be far away. However, the Garden county have to start as favourites tomorrow.