Today's Allianz Hurling and football league previews
(2.30 unless stated): NHL Division 1
Galway v Wexford
Pearse Stadium (TG4)
Wexford have returned to join the good people of Division 1 and are rewarded with an in-at-the-deep-end trip to the league title holders and competition specialists. From the sunny south-east to windy and wet Salthill.
They are helped though by Galway's personnel losses, including their two best forwards, Joe Canning (pictured) and Damien Hayes. The team captain Shane Kavanagh must also sit it out, which means John Lee protects the small square. The midfield has a shake-up -- Damien Burke and Donal Barry forming a new axis -- and Iarla Tannian poses a threat to Wexford's goal.
Wexford would have welcomed the lift of a Leinster club win for Oulart, and now must focus on strengthening the team during the coming spring. Colm Bonnar is in full rebuilding mode, introducing newcomers in key positions: Niall Breen in goal, Matthew O'Hanlon at full-back, Brendan Doyle at midfield and Keith Burke at full-forward. Paul Roche and Darren Stamp make timely returns. Galway look sturdier.
Cork v Offaly
Páirc Uí Chaoimh
Offaly produced some exceptional hurling against Galway last summer but remain one of the candidates likely to be struggling for survival when the league nears its conclusion. This hasn't the makings of an auspicious start; the fixture has proved highly unproductive for the Faithful over the years. Denis Walsh has begun breaking down the old defensive edifice -- retiring Seán óg ó hAilpín the most notable statement to date. The old half-back line is therefore dismantled and today sees a newcomer, Mark Ellis, wearing the centre-back shirt beside John Gardiner and Ray Ryan. Tom Kenny starts in the half-forward line with Pa Cronin, prominent in the Fitzgibbon Cup, asked to lead the attack.
Waterford v Dublin
Walsh Park (TG4, deferred)
An odd and unpredictable spring fixture. A few years ago, Waterford's defeat at Parnell Park cast dubious light on the decision to take in the Bernard Dunne fight the night prior to the game. Then last year Dublin went down to Waterford the night before in a show of model professionalism and were still blown off the field. It's hard to find the right balance sometimes. Waterford, like last year, are under-strength. It didn't matter in 2010 and Dublin will keenly remember this and surely not be so docile in the opening ten minutes. They have had some injury problems too, including Ryan O'Dwyer, their Tipp-born recruit, and suspension issues over Johnny McCaffrey. But Conal Keaney (pictured) is back in which is welcome news for those lamenting the loss of one of the capital's most talented hurlers. They can win this. But it's time for Dublin to turn the 'can' into 'will'.
Clare v Limerick
Not the Braveheart-style encounter it once was but still it retains appeal, especially with two teams meeting in the process of reformation and needing the confidence nourishment of wins.
Clare are the more advanced in their programme and they have a manager who won't need to research the Limerick players, even the younger faces, after leading Adare to three county titles in recent times. The counties know each other well and the crossover was evident in the Ardscoil Rís teams, with Limerick's supply supplemented by players of Clare stock.
Clare have shown promise since Ger O'Loughlin's arrival as manager but the fadeout against Dublin last year was a rude awakening. More encouraging have been the recent strides at minor and under 21 and, even more so, the style of hurling employed; a much purer form than Clare teams of the past. They can mix it, but they can also hurl.
Limerick are adopting the same policy and there are some young players now on the team and on the fringes that bear testimony to that. Kevin Downes, named at full-forward, is one of those. Most of the older faces have returned and Donal O'Grady is a serious operator, wise and thorough and not likely to start mollycoddling players. Even without Gavin O'Mahony and Brian Geary, Limerick will be hard work for Clare. The home side should have enough work done to edge it though.
Down v Carlow
Carlow travel across Strangford Lough to play Down, whose most recent competitive action was a defeat to DCU in the Kehoe Cup quarter-finals. Carlow are well managed and should be in good physical condition, while their hurling is improving. Last year they took Wexford's scalp in the league and they'll expect to beat a Down team still waiting on the return of Paul Braniff.
Kerry v Antrim
Kerry were promoted last year as winners of Division 3A and are well prepared by John Meyler and his associates, but this is a hard opener, even if it is at home. In their favour too is Antrim having to hurl without the Loughgiel players and Dinny Cahill's tendency to treat the league with industrial quantities of salt. Still, Antrim should muster up enough enthusiasm to win.
Westmeath v Laois
Brendan Fennelly kicks off his campaign with a match against a team Laois have learned not to take lightly, although one that has slipped back in recent years. Laois were close challengers for promotion last year. They have some lovely hurlers, but need to stake a genuine promotion bid.
Derry v Armagh, Banagher, D Magee (Down): Derry pushed promoted Kerry last year and would still be regarded as higher up the pecking order than the improving Armagh.
London v Meath, Ruislip, P Casey (Waterford): Meath, winners of the Kehoe Cup, face London who they narrowly defeated last year.
Wicklow v Kildare, Arklow, S Cleere (Kilkenny): Wicklow were narrowly defeated in the Kehoe Cup final and are robust opposition at home. They face a Kildare side relegated from Division 2.
Fingal v Monaghan, Swords, C Lyons (Cork): Mid-table finishes for Fingal may be improved on this spring. Monaghan were promoted as winners of Division 4.
Louth v Sligo, Darver, P O'Dwyer (Carlow): Not a lot separating these but the latest form leans us towards Louth.
Mayo v Roscommon, Tooreen, J O'Mahoney (Limerick): Mayo were relegated from Division 3A and Roscommon finished second to Wicklow in the promotion battle. Not much in it then.
Cavan v Fermanagh, Breffni Park, G Duffy (Antrim): With shallow hurling pools, both counties have been earmarked for outside aid. Fermanagh marginally the healthier perhaps.
Longford v South Down, Pearse Park, P Murphy (Carlow): Poor season for South Down last year with just one win.
Tyrone v Leitrim, Omagh, F Smith (Meath): Relegated Tyrone face a team which finished bottom of the hurling league last year on score difference.
NFL Division 4
Carlow v Fermanagh, Dr Cullen Park, D O'Mahoney (Tipperary): Carlow had a positive start drawing at home to Wicklow but Fermanagh will be a tougher proposition -- anxious to get back up the league. Their last match was a McKenna Cup win over Donegal. They can get off the mark here.
Leitrim v Wicklow, Carrick-on-Shannon, E McHugh (Tyrone): Leitrim got the perfect start with a home win over Clare, but had two-man advantage for much of the second half. A win here would set them up for a real promotion push but Wicklow have more guile.
Sunday Indo Sport