Kilkenny v Wexford, Sunday, 11th March, Nowlan Park, 14:30
It’s kind of crept up unnoticed, but in the last three meetings of these sides in the respective competitions (league, Championship, Walsh Cup) it’s the Yellow Bellies who have emerged victorious each time. Not only that, but two of those games were in Nowlan Park, and at least one could have been by a lot more. Is it too early to say, after nearly 20 years of being beaten the crap out of, that Kilkenny now fear Wexford?
Certainly not, would most likely be the Kilkenny and Brian Cody response, but what can’t be denied is that Davy Fitz, both in his last year with his native county, and first year and a half with his adopted one, has a habit of getting under the old Don’s skin. Kilkenny have never really learned to deal expertly with the sweeper system, and the level of fitness that Davy’s men usually accrue in the early season also stands to them. In fact, Davy has become a bit of an expert at getting his teams to peak in the spring, but should he be more concerned with conserving their energy now, rather than expending it?
It could also be argued that, for the first time in 20 years, well, maybe Wexford just have better players than Kilkenny? The likes of Lee Chin, Conor McDonald and Diarmuid O’Keeffe would easily get into the Kilkenny line up, while a lot of their opponents would struggle to get into theirs. The good news for Kilkenny is that they’ve performed much better in the last 2 games, and with the likes of James Maher and Martin Keoghan bedded in, there is at least some shape forming to their probable championship team. But they’re still missing 5 front line players (Paul and Eoin Murphy, Conor Fogarty, Richie Hogan, Colin Fennelly) and with the momentum that Wexford have, and the freaky hoodoo they’ve been holding over their opponents for the last while, that just might be enough.
VERDICT: Wexford by 2
Waterford v Clare, Sunday, 11th March, Walsh Park, 14:30
It’s been a league to forget for Derek McGrath and his, currently, not so merry band of men. Ever since the Kilkenny game a few weeks ago, the relegation final carried an air of inevitability about it, and while the victory in Cork was a boost for morale, they probably just see this game as a distraction from the real business that will unfold in the coming months.
Clare on the other hand, have had the exact opposite experience. They were flying it, fecking flying it, until the Davy Juggernaut derailed them in the sunny south east. The thing is though, they seem to want to have a good league. And that’s understandable. You could argue Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor were only getting to know the job last year, but there’s no excuses this time. On paper, this is an experienced team, but the swagger of 2013 seems like an eternity ago, and is only now being slowly rebuilt. Sunday’s game should be another step forward in that redemption.
VERDICT: Clare by 3
Tipperary v Cork, Sunday, 11th March, Semple Stadium, 14:30
Hmmm. So how do we frame the first few months of John Meyler’s tenure then. An understandably bumpy bedding in period? A malaise? A rut? Certainly, while the Rebels have not been soundly beaten in any game, they’ve not convinced in any of them. Even their opening win against Kilkenny could easily have gone either way. Whisper it, but did the team actually over-achieve last summer and was their pre-2017 form actually a truer indicator of their value?Whatever the truth of it, their form has been a bit disconcerting of late, and Sunday does not look like their kind of game.
Tipp on the other hand have been doing what Tipp always do. Gloriously golden wristed one week, frustratingly inconsistent the next. They’re still probably the best team in the country, “on their day”. It just so happens that most of those days seem to be on their home turf. Thankfully, Sunday’s one is there, and against a team low on confidence, this seems a game right up their alley.
VERDICT: Tipp by 7
Galway v Limerick, Sunday, 11th March, Pearse Stadium, 14:30
Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you fixture makers, for leaving this game til the last round, because despite it being in the defacto second tier, this is inarguably the game of the weekend. For a start it features the All-Ireland champions, as well as a large portion of last year’s All-Ireland under 21 champions, and with it being a winner takes all promotion decider, there’s a lot to whet the appetite.
Now usually in such circumstances, when a game is on a precipice, you’d be tempted to give the vote of confidence to the home side. Particularly, of course, when said side is reigning All-Ireland champions. On the other hand, you get a sense that Galway have been blowing off the cobwebs for the majority of this year’s league and, considering they won both the spring and summer competition from their lowly 1B base last year, wouldn’t be unduly worried if they had to spend another year there.
For Limerick though, this is an all or nothing deal. They’re a young team, trying to progress, but it’s a good deal harder to get up to the level of the country’s top sides, when you’ve been playing in a different division to them for the past 8 years. The likes of Aaron Gillane and Graeme Mulcahy will play more important matches this year, but it will be hard for them to believe they can win bigger games, if they can’t win this one. So while I’m tempted to say home advantage may be a factor, the hunch is that the Treaty’s greater desire for top flight action just might swing it in their direction.
VERDICT: Limerick by 1
Laois v Dublin, Sunday, 11th March, O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, 14:30
Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard. Come to Dublin Hurling they said! It would be great they said! Seemingly the Dublin county board has an ability to sell ice to eskimos, because if you were Pat Gilroy, you’d be looking through the fine print of the contract to see if you have any cause to cancel it. Because Dublin entered into this year’s Division 1B as one of the favourites, and now are grimly battling the odds to avoid relegation.
Laois on the other hand, are just trucking along as Laois tend to do. Scrape a win here, being edged out there. They were overturned in a local derby against Offaly last time out, but the scoreline was probably more flattering to them, than the victors.
It’s a big game Sunday though. If Galway Limerick is the promotion decider, this is basically the relegation play off semi-final. It’s a massive fixture for both sides, but considering the expectations coming into the league, you imagine it’s particularly crucial for Dublin. Even though nothing they can really do on Sunday will overshadow what’s been a pretty shocking spring, a win at least, may take the bare look off it.
VERDICT: Dublin by 3
Offaly v Antrim, Sunday, 11th March, St Brendan’s Park Birr, 14:30
Two steps forwards, one step back. That’s what it must have felt like for Kevin Martin and his cohorts after, what looked like a landmark win against Dublin, was followed up by an equally dismaying defeat against Limerick. Galway away was always one they were likely to lose, but at the very least the win last time against Laois steadied the ship. It’s a while since the faithful have won 3 league games in a season, so a win on Sunday would constitute a successful campaign.
For Antrim, this year’s league has been a series of “what if’s?” In another season they could have won 3 games. In another season they could have been in the league quarter finals, but as it is, the relegation decider is their lot. As such, they may want to take the foot off the gas a little this weekend as this isn’t a must win game. Next week’s game against Laois or Dublin though, certainly is.
VERDICT: Offaly by 6