Waterford defence too strong

 

With hardly a glimpse of sunshine around the country, five counties had their first and last experience of summer in the space of 70 minutes as the football and hurling championship galloped into full motion yesterday. For the winners, especially the Waterford and Wexford hurlers, it was a more difficult battle than the initial hurdle usually demands, with both Limerick and Dublin coming within a single point of prolonging their season.

While none of the football encounters created such a tight passage, the finishes at Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Nowlan Park left skid marks on the pitch. If this is anything to go by, one awaits the arrival of the likes of Tipperary, Clare and Kilkenny.

For a long time, however, it looked like being a casual afternoon for the 30,000-strong crowd at Pairc Ui Chaoimh as Waterford raced to an eight point lead over Limerick within the first 20 minutes of their Munster Hurling opener. With Paul Flynn and Ken McGrath never short of a score, and the unexpected appearance of the always inspiring Tony Browne, Waterford were as surprised as any by Limerick's fighting finish.

Having lost Brian Greene for a second booking 15 minutes into the second-half, and then watching Mike Houlihan score with a long range goal, it may not have been hurling at its best, but it was certainly championship hurling at its best.

Limerick manager Eamonn Cregan had been talking about an emphasis switch from fitness to skill in the build-up to this game, but for most of the first-half his side seemed to have trouble with both. The Waterford defence proved far more difficult than expected and one wondered how Limerick would manage to find a way through. When they did, it was suddenly anyone's game.

Despite being without Greene, Waterford still survived 1-16 to 115 to set-up their meeting with Cork in a fortnight. Captain Brian Flannery said "relief" was the unanimous feeling afterwards, although there was also much talk about the poor state of the pitch.

As expected, Nowlan Park was dominated by Wexford supporters as nobody but Dublin themselves imagined the Leinster Hurling first round going any other way. That indeed was the case until Dublin gradually began to outscore the favourites, winning the second-half score 1-8 to 0-4 and finishing with the last six points.

By the end, Wexford manager Rory Kinsella was on his feet as his worst nightmare seemed to be staring him in the face. Unfortunately for Dublin, 16 wides in total, including one in the last minute, was the ultimate inhibiting factor and Wexford survived 1-13 to 1-12.

Dublin manager Michael O'Grady was quick to praise his side's "courage", but felt that they "didn't quite believe enough in the impossible". Neither does he believe in the current championship format in Leinster. "The summer hasn't even started and we're gone," he said. "The real tragedy is that this is a young team wanting to develop and we won't get another game for five months, and that's the way it's been for the last 10 years."

O'Grady will make a decision whether he will extend his three-year run as manager later this week, while Wexford now turn their attention to the Offaly clash on June 20th.

Elsewhere, it was a case of Fermanagh, Roscommom and Westmeath moving on relatively easily to another footballing Sunday. It was Leitrim who managed to put up the greatest challenge, in the first-half at least, as they were even with Roscommon at the halfway point of the Connacht championship first round at Carrickon-Shannon.

Paul McDermott's goal just before the interval, however, was Leitrim's only real glimpse of victory as Roscommon turned up the pace and scoring from then on, in particular through Frank Dolan, to come home 0-15 to 1-7 in front. There was little euphoria, more a sense of a job well done and the prospect of the more enticing clash with Mayo in a fortnight's time.

There were, however, more enjoyable scenes in Clones as the improving Fermanagh disposed of a tiring Monaghan 2-12 to 1-10 in the Ulster championship. And with two penalties in the first-half, there was no lack of drama either. Declan Smyth converted the first in the opening minute for Monaghan, and they built on that to find themselves 1-4 to 0-2 ahead inside the first quarter. Shane King then put away Fermanagh's chance from the spot soon after and with Tom Brewster keeping the scores frequent, they moved into a four point lead in as many minutes of the second-half. After that, Monaghan didn't get any closer.

For manager Pat King, this win was something he felt Fermanagh both needed and deserved. "We honestly expected to win if we could control mid-field," he said. "And the way we played in the second-half, I knew we would win going away. We've been on the road for three years now with this team and I think we are able to deal better with more physical sides than people think." Fermanagh have now booked their meeting with Tyrone on June 27th.

Meanwhile, the last stage of the Leinster preliminary round saw Westmeath cruise past Longford in a one-sided affair at Mullingar, eventually finishing 3-17 to 2-09. Still riding on the high of the under-21 victory, this was something of a waltz as they jumped to a 3-6 to 0-5 lead by the end of the first-half. Ger Heavina and Dessie Dolan proved most useful in the scoring area and even if they let their foot off the pedal towards the end, it was never a case of pulling up.

Westmeath manager Brendan Lowry, with the controversy of Carlow finally behind him, was able to talk in a strictly positive tone ahead of their next round meeting with Laois in two weeks. "I think we rose to the pressure of this game," he said. "This panel can perform at the highest senior level and it was good to see that we played close to that today. We did ease off, but that happens and all the lads were capable of raising it again when they needed to."

Finally, Willie O'Donnell made a little piece of history on Saturday when he scored New York's first championship point at Castlebar after 17 minutes. Unfortunately, Mayo were already 1-5 clear at that point, and added another goal before the end of the half.

The New York side, to their credit, organised themselves a lot better in the second-half as Mayo seemed to run out of steam. Still, they claimed a third goal 15 minutes from time, about the only highlight in the closing stages, and they arrived home comfortable winners 3-13 to 0-10.