Waterford and Cork both have key players to replace in 2021.
Waterford and Cork both have key players to replace in 2021.

Preview: Weekend's Allianz Hurling League Division One

Allianz Hurling League Division 1A

Saturday May 8

Westmeath v Galway, TEG Cusack Park, 2pm, TG4

Limerick vs Tipperary, LIT Gaelic Grounds, 5.30pm, Eir Sport

Sunday May 9

Cork vs Waterford, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 3.45pm, TG4

There must surely have never been a time when the return of competitive action was as eagerly awaited as this. Almost half a year has passed since the last competitive game of any type, and across tomorrow and Sunday we will see the opening bids from every county in their bid to follow in the footsteps of last year’s triumphant sides, whether that’s Limerick, Antrim, Kildare, Donegal or Louth.

Westmeath and Galway get the action underway on Saturday afternoon in a pairing that has thrown up the same result in every meeting bar one – Westmeath’s 2-12 to 1-12 in November of 1986. That wasn’t a vulnerable Galway side either, as Cyril Farrell’s men were to go unbeaten for the next 15 months after that, and win the next two All-Ireland titles.

Recent results would suggest that a repeat of that incredible victory is unlikely, but at the same time Lake County manager Shane O’Brien will feel that he has to target their home games, particularly one like this where it’s impossible for any team to be fully tuned in. He’ll certainly expect a big performance from Davy Glennon, who could make his first start for Westmeath against his home county. With former Galway coach Noel Larkin also part of the Westmeath backroom team, there’ll be no shortage of inside knowledge in the home camp at least.

Joe Canning, Daithi Burke and Padraic Mannion are among the high-profile names not listed to start this fixture, but with four 2020 All-Star nominees in the starting 15, it’s still a strong team that Shane O’Neill will send into action.

Limerick have also left a couple of very big names off their starting team-sheet but a full-blooded encounter is still very likely at the LIT Gaelic Grounds, with Tipperary keen to reverse the recent trend in this fixture, where their neighbours have gained the upper hand.

John Kiely has shaken up the Limerick attack in particular, handing a start to the Na Piarsaigh trio of Conor Boylan, Adrian Breen and David Dempsey, while he’ll be particularly eager to see how Richie English fares on his return after a lengthy injury.

On the Tipperary side, Liam Sheedy’s selection will be even more interesting. In 2020 his team was still backboned by the established stars that have passed their 30th birthday and seen the world revolve around the sun at least once or twice more since then. If he is to look for unknown aces in the pack and put them through an education on the world of elite intercounty hurling, then surely games like this will make up a key part of the syllabus.

Local rivalry is also on the menu on Sunday, when Cork play host to Waterford. Adjusting to life without Tadhg de Búrca, Stephen O’Keeffe and Pauric Mahony won’t be easy, and how Liam Cahill decides to fill the massive hole left by de Búrca at centre back will be fascinating. Austin Gleeson to drop back, Conor Prunty to move up, Iarlaith Daly to step in – there are options, and good ones.

Cork have also lost some totemic figures, none more so than Anthony Nash in goal, but there is also a sense that the Rebels still have a lot of unanswered questions. Tipperary’s win over them in last year’s qualifiers means it’s now been 16 years since they’ve sat on top of the heap, a drought the county has known just once before (1903 to 1919). If they are to leave that record unbroken, they’ll need to address some big deficiencies, most notably in sectors like the full back line, and underneath contested puckouts. That journey starts on Sunday.   

GALWAY (v Westmeath): Eanna Murphy; Sean Loftus, Gearoid McInerney, Jack Fitzpatrick; Aidan Harte, Shane Cooney, Fintan Burke; Johnny Coen, Cathal Mannion; Conor Cooney, Evan Niland, Brian Concannon; Jarlath Mannion, Niall Burke, Conor Whelan.

LIMERICK (v Tipperary): Nickie Quaid; Aaron Costello, Sean Finn, Richie English; Diarmaid Byrnes, Kyle Hayes, Barry Nash; William O’Donoghue, Darragh O’Donovan; Tom Morrissey, David Reidy, Conor Boylan; Adrian Breen, Seamus Flanagan, David Dempsey.

Kilkenny will travel back to the capital to meet Dublin tomorrow.
Kilkenny will travel back to the capital to meet Dublin tomorrow.

Allianz Hurling League Division 1B

Saturday May 8

Dublin v Kilkenny, Parnell Park, 3.30pm, Eir Sport

Sunday May 9

Antrim vs Clare, Corrigan Park, 1pm, Spórt TG4

Wexford vs Laois, Chadwicks Wexford Park, 1.45pm, TG4

Last year’s meeting of Dublin and Kilkenny in the league was a somewhat one-sided affair, and for long stretches, it looked as if their Leinster semi-final clash was to turn out the same. A late Dublin rally completely transformed things however, and we were treated to one of the most entertaining finishes to any game imaginable.

Given the age profile of Mattie Kenny’s side, there is clear scope for improvement. Nine of their starters in their last game of 2020 were aged 23 or under, and with established players at 3, 6, and 11, there is a spine there. Midfield has been a bit more of a conundrum however, and getting a bit more of a foothold in that sector will be crucial.

To put the age of the Dublin team in context, none of those nine players were born when Brian Cody was appointed Kilkenny senior hurling manager, as this year he will embark on his 24th campaign at the helm. Ger Aylward and Paul Murphy have retired while Colin Fennelly has stepped away for the year, but how many times before have we spoke of Kilkenny losing outstanding players, only for Cody to regenerate his team almost immediately?

It’s been three years since Antrim have hurled in Division One of the Allianz League, but that in that 2018 campaign they lost games to Galway, Dublin and Laois by a goal or less, so there remains a core group of players that have known what it’s like to be very competitive at the highest level.

If they are to take a prestigious scalp, then a home tie against Clare looks to be a glorious opportunity to do so. It’s been an inauspicious run for the Banner men, and without a championship win at U-21 or U-20 level for six years, the winning habit has been lost in that part of the world. Yet it shouldn’t be forgotten that in that campaign six years ago, Clare lost out narrowly to a Limerick team containing Gearóid Hegarty, Tom Morrissey, Cian Lynch, Sean Finn, Richie English, Mike Casey, Diarmaid Byrnes and more. There’s talent in Clare, if they can find a way to deliver on it.

Of all the Liam MacCarthy Cup counties, it could be argued that no-one under-achieved more than Wexford in 2020. The promise that was shown in an impressive league campaign in the Spring was a distant memory after the lockdown, when anaemic displays against Galway and Clare made for a quick exit for the 2019 Leinster champions.

Laois offered far more in their clash with Clare and arguably could have won their game in Nowlan Park, but even at this early stage of the season, they’ve been afflicted with a series of significant injuries and that will be a huge hurdle for Seamus Plunkett’s side to overcome in Wexford.