OFFALY v DUBLIN
(Tullamore, Tomorrow 2.30)
IT was critically important -- for morale even more so than league standings -- that Dublin's hurlers produced the right response against Tipperary two weeks ago.
As it transpired, they went even further and the resultant nine-point triumph banished all of the darkly ominous clouds that had accompanied their previous 13-point pasting in Waterford. But to say Dublin are automatically back on glorious track would be wildly premature.
They have two points after two games, which makes them no different than Kilkenny, Tipp and Waterford among the pack of teams chasing the early pace-setters from Cork and Galway. Ergo, their spring campaign can go one of two ways: either they beat Offaly and stay in the race for a league final place or they take another backward step, with the consequent prospect of getting sucked into a relegation dogfight.
To put matters bluntly, if Dublin are to build on last year's undoubted progress then these are the games they should be winning.
It has never been easy for a Sky Blue hurling team on Offaly soil, and there is no reason why they shouldn't expect more fraught moments in O'Connor Park. But the table shows that Joe Dooley's men are still struggling to make the adjustment from Division Two; at different stages they threatened to make a game of it against Cork and Kilkenny, but ultimately ended up losing by 11 and eight points respectively.
After the latter defeat Dooley pinpointed the failure of his half-forwards to win any primary ball against Kilkenny's vaunted half-backs. They won't be facing Messrs Walsh, Tyrrell and Delaney tomorrow, but Dublin fans can happily point out that their own half-backs, led by skipper Stephen Hiney, ruled the skies against Tipp.
Dublin's half-forward division were equally on top, with Liam Rushe revealing further evidence of his adhesive paw, while Shane Durkin worked tirelessly and Peter Kelly showed signs of delivering on his obvious potential.
This hasn't dissuaded Anthony Daly from some minor tinkering, with Durkin reverting to midfield to facilitate the recall of Liam Ryan at wing-forward.
In summary, if Dublin can again dominate their own puckout and if we have more of the same from their in-form corner-backs (Niall Corcoran and Oisin Gough), their revitalised midfielder (Johnny McCaffrey) and their metronomic All Star (Alan McCrabbe) then both points will definitely be heading back up the M4 motorway. And in the likely event that they aren't quite so dazzling, they can still win by a couple of points.
ODDS: Offaly 7/5, Draw 9/1, Dublin 4/6