RELEGATED last season, the Cork hurlers will be hoping to take a major step towards reclaiming their Division 1 status when they square up to Limerick at Pairc Uí Rinn next Saturday night.
It could be a make-or-break game for both teams in terms of gaining promotion, as, with due respect to Wexford, Offaly, Antrim and Laois, the sides involved in last year's Munster final would be strongly fancied to string a four-game winning sequence together after their opening round encounter has been resolved.
With four teams from Division 2 to go through to the knock-out stages, it can be taken for granted that Cork and Limerick will both qualify for the league quarter-finals, regardless of how their collision unfolds, but that won't diminish their desire for victory in the slightest.
Cork were very disappointed to be demoted last season, and team boss Jimmy Barry-Murphy recently stated that the immediate priority is to go back up this year. Limerick have been operating in Division 2 for the past couple of seasons, and they have endured much frustration in their efforts to get out of it.
Having topped the group in the last two campaigns, they fell to Clare and Dublin in the 2012 and 2013 finals respectively, but, under the new format, they will be guaranteed to move up should they finish on top of the pile this time
Despite the disappointment which Cork and Limerick experienced in the league last year, both made a positive impact in the championship, and they are entitled to be optimistic about what the season ahead has in store.
Cork – beaten by Limerick in the Munster final when the fact that they were forced to play the entire second half with just 14 players was perhaps the primary reason for their undoing – finished the year empty-handed, but their progress to the All-Ireland final showed they have made great strides over the past 12 months.
They didn't lose face when succumbing after two epic battles with Clare last September and it would add to the feel-good factor currently prevailing on Leeside were they to secure promotion in the league before the championship gets underway. The same applies to Limerick, of course, so a cracking contest looks on the cards on Saturday night.
Cork will be missing Patrick Cronin, Conor O'Sullivan, Seamus Harnedy and Brian Murphy from the team that lined out in the two games against Clare at Croke Park last year, with Cronin, O'Sullivan, and Harnedy ruled out by injury, and the long-serving Murphy undecided about his future at inter-county level. But, apart from Tom Kenny, who has retired, the management will have all the other members of last year's squad available for the visit of their Munster final conquerors.
So, Cork will be putting out a fairly strong team, and, with home advantage, they will expected to make a bold bid for a victory that would put them in pole position for promotion, especially since they will also be at home for the games against Wexford and Offaly, the two sides most likely to pose problems for the Rebels and Limerick in the group.
It's expected that footballers Eoin Cadogan and Aidan Walsh, both of whom have decided to answer the call to join the hurling squad as well this year, will be included in the starting fifteen for the clash with Limerick, and obviously much interest will be focused on how they shape up.
Cadogan filled a dual role before opting to concentrate on football last year, but it's new territory for Walsh, and, for all his potential as a ball-winning wing-forward, there is no guarantee he will instantly cut the mustard in top-flight hurling. It's a big step up for the Kanturk clubman, and it might take him a while before he finds his feet, but it would be a big positive for Cork should he perform up to scratch on Saturday night.
While Cork won't be at full strength, the indications are that Limerick could be even more depleted, with their Na Piarsaigh contingent, involved in an All-Ireland club semi-final last weekend, yet to rejoin the squad, and a number of other regulars on the injured list, including ace forward Declan Hannon.
All of which suggests that Cork can take the spoils, but it goes without saying that Limerick won't be an easy nut to crack, all the more so since the stakes are much higher than would normally be the case for a league opener.