Five things to watch out for in this weekend's Allianz National Hurling League Semi-Finals
Hurling folk the length and breadth of the country will be rubbing their hands together at the veritable feast of hurling on show this weekend with the Allianz National Hurling League semi-finals down for decision.
An enticing double-header in Nowlan Park this Sunday pitting Cork versus Dublin (2pm) and Munster rivals Tipperary and Waterford (4pm) will be the perfect build up for what should be another enthralling championship season.
Here’s five things to look out for this weekend as the ground hardens and the great game kicks into full flow.
1) Conspicuous absence of the Cats
Your eyes are not deceiving you, the semi-final pairings are correct and there is no place for Brian Cody’s All-Ireland champions, who only narrowly retained their division 1A status in a joust against Clare.
Kilkenny have been the kingpins of the league for the last three seasons, and much of the last 15 years, using it as a major springboard to bigger honours later in the year.
However, a sub standard campaign filled with high-profile retirements, the absence of the Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent and the blooding of new talent has left them out in the cold before championship.
With all of the other big guns getting high-intensity hurling, the Cats will have to go through an unusual summer preparation but you can rest assured the infamous internal wars in Nolan Park will have them ready.
2) Premier retrieval mission
Eamon O’Shea must be glad that the old enemy are no where to be seen as Kilkenny have stood between Tipperary and silverware umpteen times in recent years.
The 2010 All-Ireland final triumph is the only major victory over their arch rivals with six major final defeats (three All-Irelands and three Leagues) in the last six years combined with championship losses in the 2012 and 2013.
With this in mind, one would imagine that the Premier will be going hammer and tongs to win their first league title since 2008 and gather serious momentum for the championship.
The extensive efforts to overturn Seamus Callanan’s red card in their quarter-final win over Offaly would suggest a savage hunger for silverware and this is a chance they are unlikely to pass up.
3) Can the Waterford renaissance continue?
Derek McGrath has admitted himself that the Deise are probably ahead of where he expected to be in terms of development at this stage and he deserves huge credit for the massive strides which have been made.
Waterford hit the ground running early in the league and deservedly won Division 1B after winning all bar one of their five fixtures, the other was a draw away to Limerick on the opening night of action.
The Munster men last won a league title with the great team of the mid-noughties in 2007 and young stars such as Tadhg de Búrca, Austin Gleeson and the deadly accurate Pauric Mahony are all rising to the challenge.
Allied with the experience and know-how of Michael “Brick” Walsh, now operating in attack, and Kevin Moran, McGrath’s side will relish testing themselves against the best in what he has described ‘the biggest game of their lives’.
4) Cunningham versus Cork Part II
Once mooted as suitable candidate for the Rebel hot seat, Cork legend Ger Cunningham has taken his first inter county post in the capital and despite some major tinkering with Anthony Daly’s work, he has enjoyed a successful league campaign.
The positioning of Liam Rushe in attack has been a talking point but on the back of a comprehensive win over Limerick in the previous round they will fancy their chances of exacting revenge.
The only major blot in their copybook came at HQ where the Rebels ran amuck amassing a huge tally of 34 points, with a whopping 21 of those coming in the first-half.
The Dubs are likely to have learned a lot that night and one can rest assured that Pat Horgan, Luke O’Farrell and Alan Cadogan will not be enjoying the same freedom of the park as they did that night.
5) Rebel retrieval mission
Leaving Croke Park after last year’s humbling semi-final defeat to neighbours Tipperary, Jimmy Barry-Murphy must have contemplated if all his three year’s work had been undone.
This year’s league started in a similar vain when falling on home turf to a depleted Kilkenny side but that loss seems to have flicked a switch inside the Rebels.
Thereafter, they have looked far more polished in the darker arts of the game with more men standing up when the need arises and winning the 50-50 balls when games are in the melting pot.
Cork ran riot in the group stages against the same opponents but one would imagine that a tighter pitch and the carrot of national honours will lead to an entirely different game. Devoid of a league title since 1998, Sunday will tell a lot about Cork’s ambitions for the year.