Adrian Mullen of Kilkenny is tackled by Mark Coleman of Cork during the 2021 GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Kilkenny and Cork at Croke Park in Dublin.
Adrian Mullen of Kilkenny is tackled by Mark Coleman of Cork during the 2021 GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship semi-final match between Kilkenny and Cork at Croke Park in Dublin. 

Preview: Weekend's Allianz Hurling League action


Allianz Hurling League Division 1 semi-final

Saturday, March 26

Cork v Kilkenny, Pairc Ui Chaoimh, 7.15pm - TG4

This clash of two traditional powers will give us a good insight into how well equipped they are to go far in this year’s Championship.

Cork fielded an experimental team in their only defeat of the campaign so far last weekend against Wexford but they’ll be at full-strength tomorrow and keen to lay down another marker in a campaign that has already seen them impressively scalp Limerick, Clare, and Galway.

That win over Limerick was especially impressive. No team has ever previously taken apart the reigning All-Ireland champions like Cork did in the first half of that match to surge 14 points clear by half-time.

This panel of Cork players is blessed with speed and skill, but it’s been very apparent they’ve also brought more steel to their play this year.

The best barometer of a team’s toughness has always been to go toe to toe with Kilkenny and see how you fare, so if Cork can dominate the rucks and collisions against the Cats in the same manner they did against Limerick then it’ll be proof positive they’ve taken their game to a new level this year.

Given the sheer firepower that Cork possess with players like Patrick Horgan, Shane Kingston, Seamus Harnedy, Jack O’Connor, Shane Barrett, Robbie O’Flynn, and a reborn Conor Lehane, if they can consistently come out on top in the middle-third warfare they’ll be a very difficult team to stop.

There have been plenty of encouraging signs too for Kilkenny so far this year.

They look to have unearthed two very good defenders in David Blanchfield and Mikey Butler, while young midfielder Cian Kenny is another tyro to have really caught the eye.

The relocation of Padraig Walsh to centre-forward has been a huge success. He’s given them a great focal point in attack and has been scoring freely.

With Walsh at centre-forward, TJ Reid at full-forward, and players like Eoin Cody, Adrian Mullen, Billy Ryan, and a revitalised Walter Walsh fanning out either side of them, Kilkenny have a forward sextet as good as any other in the country.

If there is one question mark still over this evolving Kilkenny team, it’s who will be their defensive lynchpin at centre-back?

So far in the campaign they’ve tried out four players in the position – Huw Lawlor, Niall Brassil, Paddy Deegan, and Richie Reid. Deegan looks like the most likely long-term bet, but it’s something Kilkenny need to nail down before the start of the Championship.

If there are any defensive frailties there, Cork’s lightning attack will expose them, so this semi-final will be a good learning exercise for Brian Cody.

All in all, it should be a very interesting tussle between two upwardly mobile teams.

Diarmuid O'Keeffe of Wexford in action against Stephen Bennett of Waterford during the 2018 Allianz Hurling League Division 1A Round 1 match between Waterford and Wexford at Walsh Park in Waterford. 
Diarmuid O'Keeffe of Wexford in action against Stephen Bennett of Waterford during the 2018 Allianz Hurling League Division 1A Round 1 match between Waterford and Wexford at Walsh Park in Waterford. 

Allianz Hurling League Division 1 semi-final

Sunday, March 27

Wexford v Waterford, UPMC Nowlan Park, 3.45pm - TG4

It’s been a hugely encouraging start to the season for Wexford under new manager Darragh Egan.

They’re the only team to have won all five of their group matches, and throughout the campaign they displayed an impressive tactical flexibility as well as a good depth of talent.

There have been big positives for the Slaneysiders all over the pitch. Rory O’Connor is the best forward in the country on current form with his display against Cork last weekend getting the standing ovation it deserved from Wexford supporters when he was substituted late on.

The return of Paudie Foley after a year away has been another major boon, because he’s been outstanding at centre-back so far this year.

His younger brother, Oisin, is one of a number of exciting young players who have broken onto the scene this year along with Oisin Pepper, Charlie McGuckin and Corey Byrne-Dunbar who have given the team some added zest.

While more seasoned players like Diarmuid O’Keeffe, Mark Fanning, Kevin Foley, and Conor McDonald are all playing with a renewed impetus.

Put all that together and Wexford look like they’re in very good shape, but we’ll be a lot wiser as to exactly where they are in the Championship pecking order after Sunday’s League semi-final against a Waterford team who have also looked very good so far this year.

Liam Cahill’s team were beaten last time out by Kilkenny, but they rested a lot of players and were already assured of a place in the semi-final so it’s probably best not to read to much into that game.

A more accurate barometer of what they’re capable of came in their 10-point win over Tipperary when they submerged the Premier County with their relentless running, voracious tackling, and accurate finishing.

Stephen Bennett, in particular, has been outstanding for the Deise, rivalling O’Connor for that status as the best forward in the country so far this year.

The fact that Waterford dismantled Tipperary without players like Calum Lyons, Dessie Hutchinson, Pauric Mahony, Jamie Barron and Kieran Bennett is a testament to the strength in depth of Liam Cahill’s panel.

They’ll want to put their best foot forward this weekend after losing to Kilkenny last time out, so expect a performance more akin to the one that was so impressive against the Premier County .

If Wexford can live with that level of hurling, then it’ll be time to talk about them as genuine championship contenders too.

Sean Cleary of Offaly in action against Matthew Donnelly of Antrim during the 2020 Kehoe Cup Final match between Antrim and Offaly at Páirc Tailteann in Navan, Meath. 
Sean Cleary of Offaly in action against Matthew Donnelly of Antrim during the 2020 Kehoe Cup Final match between Antrim and Offaly at Páirc Tailteann in Navan, Meath. 

Saturday, March 26

Allianz Hurling League Division 1 relegation play-off

Antrim v Offaly, Pairc Tailteann, 3pm - TG4 youtube

This is a huge match for two teams who have made great strides in the past couple of years.

Another year in Division 1 would further accelerate that development, relegation to Division 2A would slow it.

Neither team has managed to win a match thus far in the competition, but both have produced some creditable performances.

Antrim, especially, could count themselves very unfortunate not to pick up any points because they were highly competitive against Kilkenny, Waterford, Dublin, and Laois, losing those four games by an average of just three points.

Offaly didn’t come quite so close to causing an upset, but they were very competitive against Wexford in particular. You could also argue that they faced a better quality of opposition in Division 1A than Antrim did in Division 1B.

The statistics would tell you that Antrim are a bit tighter at the back and more potent in attack than Offaly, but if reports that star forward Neil McManus will miss the game due to a hamstring injury are true then he’ll be a huge loss to a team already without Niall McKenna and Michael Bradley.

Sunday, March 27

Allianz Hurling League Division 2A semi-final

Westmeath v Kerry, TEG Cusack Park, 1pm

Allianz Hurling League Division 2B semi-final

Donegal v Sligo, Letterkenny, 2pm

Allianz Hurling League Division 2B relegation play-off

Mayo v Wicklow, Bord Na Mona O'Connor Park, 12.30pm

Allianz Hurling League Division 3A semi-final

Roscommon v Armagh, Dr Hyde Park, 2pm

Allianz Hurling League Division 3B semi-final

Longford v Leitrim, Glennon Brothers Pearse Park, 2.30pm