By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — No one was expecting too many surprises as the National Hurling League once again got under way in the relentless mud of an Irish winter, but then up popped Offaly. The Leinster county’s Div. 1A game against holders Galway had been teed up as something of a no-contest, only for Offaly to pull off an impressive victory by 2-23 to 3-11.
This was exactly the start that reinstalled manager Michael Bond had been hoping for. Most of the attention was focused on Galway, who are regarded by many pundits as favorites to retain their title, but in Birr last Sunday it was Bond and his team who did the business.
The loss of Johnny Dooley through injury didn’t augur well for the winners’ prospects, yet Dooley’s replacement, 19-year-old Damien Murray, didn’t just cope with the challenge, he fashioned a sensational competitive debut with a total of 14 points, 12 of which came from frees.
Admittedly, not too many of Murray’s opportunities were overly difficult, but for sheer accuracy and reliability on a treacherous playing surface, this was a tremendous exhibition of free-taking. Equally, pre-game rumors that Offaly’s Birr contingent would be unavailable due to club commitments turned out to be untrue and Simon and Barry Whelahan, Rory and Gary Hanniffy, Johnny Pilkington and Joe Errity all lined out.
Meanwhile, Galway were without their Athenry players and newcomers such as Padraig Walsh and Darren Shaughnessy, who toiled on either side of Cathal Moore, struggled to make any impact.
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"That simply wasn’t good enough," manager Noel Lane said. "Hopefully, we’ve got one bad game out of our system and can pick it up from here."
Galway will certainly have to pick it up because on this occasion they were outplayed in every department despite the tonic of an early goal by David Tierney. However, between Tierney’s strike and a last-ditch Galway flurry, Offaly outscored their opponents by 2-23 to 1-9 to register their biggest -ver tally in a league game against the Connacht champions.
Conor Gath and Pilkington each bagged a goal and Murray kept the the scoreboard ticking over with his regular supply of frees.
"It worked out OK for me," was the youngster’s modest analysis of his startling debut.
Maybe the days when Offaly only seemed to function with the sun on their backs are over.
Limerick 4-18, Antrim 1-4
The balance of the games at the Gaelic Grounds was more predictable, Limerick trouncing Antrim. Once again, a heavy pitch made classy hurling impossible and Limerick’s fast start meant there was only ever going to be one outcome. Ollie Moran, with two, Mark Keane and Jim Butler had the winners’ goals, while the impressive Keane added a further eight points for good measure.
"I felt sorry for Antrim, who tried hard without their Dunloy players," Limerick manager Eamonn Cregan said. "We played our best hurling over the first 20 minutes, but, that said, it’s crazy to start the competition at this time of year."
Clare 4-15, Meath 0-14
There was also a reality check for newly promoted Meath, who must have felt the gulf in class when they were pulverized by Clare in Ennis. A goal down after just 20 seconds, when Conor Clancy fired a shot past Mark Gannon, Meath’s fate was sealed as Clare manager Cyril Lyons successfully began his preparations for an assault on the competition.
There were good performances from Meath’s Fergus McMahon and Nicky Horan, eavh of whom finished with six points, but Clare goals by Sean Ryan, who scored two, and Alan Markham pushed the margin to 13 points.
Wexford 2-10, Laois 0-9
Things meteorological also permeated the games in Div. 1B with Wexford manager Tony Dempsey questioning the wisdom of the early February fixture schedule.
"The pitch was unplayable," said Dempsey, whose team overcame Laois at Rathdowney. "It was ludicrous to see a ball hopping on the ground and water splashing up. Playing on an unplayable pitch is no way to promote hurling."
The conditions hardly promoted a mood of mutual understanding as James Young of Laois was yellow carded after just 10 seconds. Later, Young and his marker, Rod Guiney, were both sent off after a bout of mud wrestling involving several players and the two will now face four-week suspensions.
There was some sympathy for Guiney, who had earlier suffered a gashed head and an eye injury and appeared to retaliate to Young’s pull. By the time Young and Guiney had departed, two Wexford goals had set the tone. The first had a touch of the bizarre about it as Adrian Fenlon’s 60-yard free deceived goalkeeper John Lyons, but the second was more impressive as Rory McCarthy and Michael Jacob combined for Larry O’Gorman to drive through a couple of challenges and kick the ball home.
Laois were in typically battling mood. However, the normally reliable David Cuddy had an off day from frees and his goal chance late in the contest was superbly saved by Damien Fitzhenry.
"If we had lost, I wouldn’t have been in a position to criticize the pitch," Dempsey said. "They would have said it was sour grapes. But there was a pool of water down the right-hand sideline."
Waterford 3-17, Derry 0-8
In the division’s second game, Waterford had it all their own way against Derry at Dungarvan. Ken McGrath was responsible for 1-6 of his team’s total, while Seamus Prendergast also had a goal, with the third coming from a Conor Murray own goal after just 30 seconds.
In Div. 2, a late Brian Keane point gave London a hard-fought 1-6 to 0-9 draw with Westmeath in Mullingar, while eight points from Tom Carew steered Kildare to a 0-14 to 0-6 win over Louth at Newbridge. A long-range free by goalkeeper Colin Byrne at Arklow edged Wicklow to a 0-15 to 1-11 victory against Down, and there was a much more comfortable success for Carlow, who trounced Roscommon by 3-13 to 1-7 at Athleague in the division’s final game, Michael Slattery had a personal total of 3-4 at the Athletic Grounds, where Kerry got the better of Armagh by 3-17 to 2-4.
In Div. 3, Tyrone overcame Cavan by 0-13 to 1-7 with Paul Lavery bagging nine points, Longford were too strong for Fermanagh, running out winners by 3-14 to 2-6, and Leitrim and Monaghan played out a 1-5 apiece draw in Carrick-on-Shannon.