Down 0-17 Wicklow 2-14
Wicklow booked their place in Division 2A of next year’s Allianz Hurling League after beating a disappointing Down team in Trim.
Eamon Kearns’ early goal gave Wicklow a solid platform in this relegation play-off, with Down relying heavily on free-taker Paul Braniff.
The Mourne men struggled as Wicklow reeled off seven straight points to take a 1-10 to 0-8 interval lead.
Jonathan ‘Bosco’ O’Neill drove home a second half penalty and despite Braniff’s best efforts, there was no way back for Down.
Both of these counties failed to win a single game during the group phase of the league, with Down’s only point coming from a draw with Wicklow in Newry.
Ger Monan’s charges finished bottom of the Division 2A table and he said it would be ‘a real kick in the teeth’ for hurling in the county if they slid down to a lower tier.
However, Down seemed resigned to their fate somewhat as they allowed Wicklow to charge clear on the scoreboard and their over-reliance on top scorer Braniff was all too obvious.
Hampered by player withdrawals, they have struggled for scores all year and Wicklow, boosted by their recent draw with Division 2A champions Carlow, were worthy winners in the end.
The throw-in time, which had been moved forward to 2pm, had to be delayed due to the late arrival of referee Fergus Smith and his match officials at the Meath venue.
Once the action got underway, Down broke into an early lead with a stiff breeze behind them and free-taker Braniff and Aaron O’Prey both finding their range.
Wicklow had an equal amount of possession in the opening stages, but the Mourne men took their scoring chances with Daniel Toner edging them 0-3 to 0-1 ahead.
Andy O’Brien turned sharply to slot Wicklow’s second point and they suddenly burst ahead for the first time after Kearns rattled the back of the net in the ninth minute.
Wayne O’Gorman did the donkey work to set up the chance and Kearns produced a neat finish. But Braniff landed a quick brace to get Down level at 1-2 to 0-5.
By the midpoint of the half, the Garden County were back in front as efforts from O’Gorman and Kearns sandwiched another pointed free from Braniff.
Crisp passing, strong running off the ball and accurate shooting were the hallmarks of Wicklow’s play as they enjoyed a purple patch approaching the half hour mark.
Back-to-back points from captain Enan Glynn put a goal between the sides. With the Down defence struggling to shore up the space, Andy O’Brien and Billy Cuddihy tagged on two more scores.
Injury doubt Jonathan O’Neill, who provided the assist for Cuddihy’s point, chipped in with a straightforward free to leave the Ulster outfit 1-9 to 0-6 adrift.
Wicklow substitute Christy Moorehouse added his name to the scoresheet before Braniff answered back with a late double, although Down were very much playing second fiddle at this stage.
Hailstones did not deter Down on the resumption as they began to eat into Wicklow’s well-earned lead. Braniff fired over a free to close the gap to 1-10 to 0-9.
But with dual player Stephen Kelly the pick of the Wicklow defenders and midfield duo Kearns and Ronan Keddy continuing to excel, Casey O’Brien’s charges were able to maintain their advantage.
They got a timely boost six minutes into the second half when O’Neill converted his penalty to the net with a low, driven shot to make it 2-10 to 0-10.
Glynn and Braniff exchanged points before Kelly sprung forward on a barnstorming run to set up Keddy for Wicklow’s twelfth point of the afternoon.
Monan sent on Andy Savage and Donal Hughes in an attempt to change the balance of play, and Braniff strung together a run of scores to put the pressure back on Wicklow.
The Portaferry clubman went for broke with a couple of close-in frees in the hope of grabbing a much-needed goal, but his point-scoring exploits were enough to test Wicklow’s mettle.
His sharpshooting reduced the arrears to three points (2-14 to 0-17) with as many minutes remaining. The scores dried up in the final minutes though and Wicklow, aided by a 63rd minute point from Keddy, held onto their divisional status.
DOWN: S Keith; M Hughes, S Ennis, J Smyth; F Conway, C Woods, M Ennis; E Clarke, M Cunningham (0-1, 0-1 sl); P Sheehan C Magean, A O'Prey (0-1); D Toner (0-1), P Braniff (0-14, 0-11f), P Keith.
Subs used: A Savage for Clarke, D Hughes for Sheehan (both 52 mins), M Turley for Keith (58), D Hobbs for Toner (68).
WICKLOW: J Murphy; Jim Connors, G Keogh, B Cuddihy (0-1); J Henderson, S Kelly, G Bermingham; E Kearns (1-1), R Keddy (0-2); John Connors, W O'Gorman (0-3), E Dunne; E Glynn (0-3), J O'Neill (1-1, 1-0 pen, 0-1f), A O'Brien (0-2).
Subs used: C Moorehouse (0-1) for John Connors (25 mins), E O'Neill for Jim Connors (50), L Kennedy for Dunne (66).
Referee: Fergus Smith (Meath).