Rebels may see Tipp as a vulnerable opponent, says Jamesie O'Connor
Having faced each other just three weeks ago, and also set to lock horns in the Munster semi-final on June 24 (although Limerick may yet have something to say about that), it's understandable if both Tipperary and Cork would have preferred to be facing alternative opposition today.
Yet, there's no reason to believe there'll be anything false about this afternoon's encounter. The guarantee of a decent crowd in Thurles for an attractive double-header means it's inconceivable either side would spurn the opportunity of another competitive outing in a fortnight.
Cork's rejuvenation under Jimmy Barry-Murphy has probably been the story of the league so far. Above all else, pride has been restored and after last July's dismal championship exit, that had to be a priority. The performances on the field have got the Cork hurling public back on side, and optimism and morale in the camp appears higher than at any stage in the last two years. All of that testifies to the esteem in which the manager is held, and the back-room team he has assembled.
More importantly, the twin objectives of blooding new players while having a largely settled team and a fair idea of his best starting 15 come the championship have been achieved, something not every manager in the division can lay claim to. At this juncture, the defensive sextet that starts today, with the exception of the injured Brian Murphy, looks like that which will play on June 24.
Most Cork supporters could feel confident about naming at least five more definite championship starters, but there are still a couple of positions up for grabs. Today therefore presents a perfect opportunity for both John Gardiner and Niall McCarthy to stake their claim and prove they still have something to offer over the full 70 minutes, and not just in a cameo role.
Ironically, the youngsters they replace, Darren Sweetnam and Conor Lehane, have been two of the team's standout performers. With the small matter of his Leaving Cert to consider, and orals on next week, it's no surprise that Sweetnam is rested. His availability for the Munster semi-final given it's proximity to exams is questionable, but Lehane looks to be an automatic choice, in an attack that seems to be gelling well together.
After their disappointing opening-round performance against Kilkenny, Tipp have been solid rather than spectacular in the four other games. Obviously Lar Corbett's departure robbed them of their most talismanic player. Eoin Kelly is also a year older, and the injuries to Bonner Maher and Seamus Callanan have further depleted attacking resources.
In fairness some of the younger players have stepped up, but the fact they failed to register a green flag in three of the five matches should be bothering supporters. That goal threat which was a hallmark of the Liam Sheedy era made them formidable opponents and without it Tipp are far less daunting.
Admittedly, with the personnel they have to come back, that spark in attack may yet be reignited, but on the evidence of the league, Cork may be concluding that they have less to fear from their old rivals than they did a year ago, and may just about shade it.
With Clare marooned in Division 2 for the past three seasons, this will be the first time most of their players will have met Kilkenny in a competitive fixture at senior level. On that basis, the Cats should have no beef with Clare, but they do have a habit of laying down markers to anyone perceived as a potential threat.
With Clare's path on a definite upward trajectory, they may view this as an opportunity to sabotage whatever confidence, progress and momentum Davy Fitzgerald has managed to generate.
You only have to look back to the Walsh Cup final earlier this year, when Brian Cody started no fewer than 10 of the All- Ireland winning side against a young and inexperienced Galway outfit stacked with many of last year's victorious under 21 side. The Tribesmen were put to the sword, and the 25-point punishment beating administered in Nowlan Park three weeks ago in the league, hammered home further their desire to keep Galway down.
Consequently, Clare need to be conscious of what could happen if the minds aren't completely right. This is a huge step up in class, yet with no expectations other than those they place on themselves, it's a great opportunity to determine where they stand.
After drubbing Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds in the opening round it was never going to be easy against the same opponents in the promotion play-off. Lucky to be only three points down at half-time, and in real trouble when the deficit was eight, five minutes into the second half, Clare showed a lot of character to come back and win the game.
Physically, they're as fit as any other team in the country at the moment, and playing a running possession-support game that the Clare public need to show patience with. Given the players Clare have, it'll be fascinating to see how that fares against such an experienced and physical side.
Obviously, it's impossible to comprehend anything other than a Kilkenny win. Cody has picked a strong side with a sprinkling of newcomers, and both Richie Doyle and in particular Cillian Buckley have looked impressive. We know they will play to a particular standard, and to stay competitive Clare will have to match if not exceed the work rate and intensity that characterise this side. If they manage to tick that box, the Banner should just about beat the seven-point handicap.