Published 26/05/2011 | 05:00
After years languishing behind the Munster hurling championship in terms of attendances and general excitement levels, a re-energised Leinster is poised to take on its southern rivals on all fronts over the next six weeks.
They have special guests Galway and Antrim aboard to help with the renewed drive, but other factors are also feeding into an equation that Leinster hope will produce the best eastern campaign for a very long time.
Dublin's emergence as a major power -- underlined by their stunning success in the Allianz League final -- has added a new dimension, while also whetting Offaly's appetite for next Sunday's quarter-final clash with Anthony Daly's rising stars.
Dublin's success has resulted in the game being switched from Parnell Park to Croke Park to accommodate the crowd, something that would not have been required in previous years. Antrim head for Wexford Park on Sunday hoping to book a first Leinster semi-final appointment, but they will find it tough against a home side who know that if they win, they will have Kilkenny at home on June 11.
That's quite an incentive for Wexford at a time when Kilkenny's rating is being questioned after their league final wipe-out.
Meanwhile, Westmeath will play Galway in Mullingar on Saturday week to decide who plays Dublin or Offaly in the other semi-final on June 18.
"A few things have happened to improve the overall scene in Leinster," said Leinster CEO Michael Delaney.
"Galway and Antrim have added to the competitiveness, Dublin have made huge strides and Kilkenny aren't seen as the near-certainties they were through all of the last decade.
"We've already had a good start to the championship in the Antrim v Laois and Carlow v Westmeath games and it's going to get a whole lot better over the coming weeks. It's all good for hurling, not just in Leinster but in an overall context too."
Delaney has highlighted weaknesses in the Leinster championship several times in annual reports over the last decade, often drawing criticism for what some perceived as negativity. However, he was only reacting to the lack of competitiveness, which left Leinster comparing most unfavourably with the more glamorous Munster campaign.
Now, the Leinster championship, which has twice as many games as Munster, is enjoying an upsurge in interest and with Galway and Antrim likely to remain there on a permanent basis, the long-term prospects are looking bright.
Former GAA president Nickey Brennan, who led the initiative to coax Galway, in particular, into Leinster during his term as Leinster chairman, believes that move has proved a major success.
"So too has the arrival of Antrim, but that probably wouldn't have happened without Galway coming on board," he said.
"I remember when, as Leinster chairman, I first mooted the possibility of Galway joining us, there was a fair degree of opposition to it west of the Shannon, but I always felt that once it was explained properly to the real hurling people in the county, the benefits would become obvious.
"Certainly, the Galway players and various managers wanted it. It's clear now for all to see that it has benefited both Galway and Leinster and I hope they, and Antrim, are here to stay. I can't see why either would want to leave," added Brennan.
Galway and Antrim are both competing in Leinster for the third year and will remain for another two seasons, after which a review will be undertaken.
With a minimum of eight games on this year's Leinster schedule, it's a totally different scenario from as recently as 2007, which had only four games, or 2008, which had six, including one replay.
Both of those campaigns -- and indeed several others during the last decade -- had some very one-sided matches.
Delaney is delighted by the dramatic turnaround in the perception of the Leinster championship over the last few seasons and by the likelihood that it's about to get even better.
"It has started very well again this year. Beating Laois in Portlaoise was a huge success for Antrim and then Westmeath, who had a very disappointing league run, beat Carlow last Sunday," said Delaney.
"We're still in the early stages, but we'd be hoping for an awful lot more excitement between now and Leinster final day."
Brennan believes that if Wexford beat Antrim next Sunday, their clash with Kilkenny in Wexford Park could be one of the highlights of the campaign.
"Wexford finished the league well, with wins over Cork and Tipperary, and would relish a crack at Kilkenny at home," he said.
"It's the sort of game they would be really up for while Kilkenny would be very wary. Wexford v Kilkenny in Wexford Park will generate a great atmosphere. This Leinster championship promises to be a fantastic competition."