Weekend Hurling Previews
Louth v Wicklow, Parnell Park, 2.30, D Magee (Down)
Wicklow easily beat Louth two weeks ago, having already won their previous five games. Promotion beckons.
Allianz NHL finals
Cork v Galway, Semple Stadium, 7.0, J Owens (Wexford). *Live on TG4
It says much about the confidence currently exuding from Cork hurling that Denis Walsh was prepared to name a brand new full-back for the league final. All the more so when he's about to be confronted by one of the deadliest hit-men in hurling.
Still, such is Cork's confidence in Milford's Eoin Dillon that he has happily slotted him in for No 3 duty against Joe Canning in what could be one of the crucial match-ups of a first league final between the counties.
Dillon replaces the injured Eoin Cadogan on a team that has performed ominously well so far this term. Granted, they lost to Galway in their last game, but since both sides had already qualified for the final, it held no more status than a challenge game. Cork's wins over Kilkenny and Tipperary were far more revealing in a campaign where they have been at their most settled for quite some time.
They have been in experimental mode, but many of the key essentials are still in place, including the John Gardiner-Ronan Curran-Sean O hAilpin half-back line which was central to so much of their success in the first half of the last decade. Are they still the same powerhouse? Perhaps not, but they haven't been displaced and with so much guile and experience in their armoury, Cork will be confident they can disrupt the supply to Canning.
Waterford did it quite well in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final so Galway will be conscious of the need to move the ball quickly and accurately towards Canning and his full-forward co-snipers, Damien Hayes and Iarla Tannian.
Galway lost their last two games in Semple Stadium (to Waterford last year and to Tipperary in March), but provided they perform at full efficiency this time, they appear to have enough power to win the title for the first time since 2004.
Last clash: Galway 3-17 Cork 2-13 (2010 NHL).
Odds: Galway 10/11; Cork 1/1; Draw 10/1.
Cork -- D Og Cusack; S O'Neill, E Dillon, B Murphy; J Gardiner, R Curran, S Og O hAilpin; T Kenny, L McLoughlin; M Cussen, K Murphy, C Naughton; B O'Connor, A O hAilpin, P Horgan.
Galway -- C Callanan; D Joyce, S Kavanagh, O Canning; D Barry, T Og Regan, D Collins; G Farragher, D Burke; A Harte, C Donnellan, A Smith; D Hayes, J Canning, I Tannian.
Clare v Wexford, Semple Stadium, 5.0, J Ryan (Tipperary). *Live on TG4
It's the second time in a year that Wexford have presented themselves at the Division 2 exit gate, jostling for the one promotion ticket which can make such a difference, both to performance and perception.
Playing against the top teams in spring leaves teams better prepared for summer, while being in Division 2 can impact on the mindset of counties like Clare, Wexford, Offaly and Limerick, who regard themselves as members of the elite.
Offaly beat Wexford in last year's Division 2 final and, while Wexford avenged the defeat with a comprehensive win in the championship, they lost to Dublin in the Leinster semi-final and to Limerick in the qualifiers. Offaly were well beaten by Cork in the qualifiers, so the inevitable conclusion for themselves and Wexford was that their Division 2 campaigns handicapped their championship efforts.
It would be a serious setback for Wexford if they were to lose a second Division 2 final, but it wouldn't exactly be good for Clare either if they were sentenced to a second year in the lower grouping. Wexford's defeat by Carlow left them in danger of missing the final, but they made it with subsequent wins over Kildare, Laois and Antrim.
Clare opened a 10-point lead against Wexford in their league clash in March, but were hauled back as Diarmuid 'Gizzy' Lyng led a revival which eventually earned his side a draw. It was Wexford at their most defiant and if they can maintain a more even performance this time they could have enough to escape Division 2.
Last clash: Clare 1-22 Wexford 2-19 (2010 NHL).
Odds: Clare 4/7; Wexford 13/8; Draw 10/1.
Wexford -- N Carton; P Roche, K Rossiter, C Kenny; R Kehoe, D Stamp, M Travers; H Kehoe, C Farrell; A Shore, E Quigley, D Lyng; R Jacob, S Banville, P Atkinson.
Clare -- P Brennan; P Vaughan, C Dillon, D O'Donovan; B Bugler, J McInerney, P Donnellan; N O'Connell, B O'Connell; S Collins, J Conlon, J Clancy; D McMahon, D Honan, C Ryan.