OFFALY v DUBLIN (Tullamore, Tomorrow 2.30, deferred coverage on TG4)
PERVERSE as it may seem for a team that has lowered the twin heavyweights of hurling over the past fortnight, the next week could well prove of season-defining significance for Dublin.
A glib overstatement designed purely to grab a headline? Not true -- at least not entirely so! Now bear with us.
Clearly we are not suggesting that back-to-back away league games against Offaly and Wexford will have a major bearing on the team's championship outlook.
After all, the outcome of Dublin's Leinster SHC opener against tomorrow's opposition will be decided by who hurls better on May 29, not March 6.
And yet, these two eminently winnable clashes will go a long way to deciding whether Dublin are (a) in the shake-up for a Division One final place; (b) suddenly sucked back into a relegation struggle; or (c) stuck somewhere in between.
Moreover, how Dublin perform this spring cannot be divorced entirely from how they ultimately fare come summer.
The first two years under Anthony Daly have confirmed as much: a very promising league in 2009 led into a championship that saw the Sky Blues reach their first Leinster senior final in 18 years.
Last year, however, spring form oscillated between occasionally lethal and lethargic; the admittedly slim chance of relegation was only banished on the last day by the demolition of Limerick's shadow squad ... and, you might argue, this set the trend for the erratic Leinster and qualifier campaign that followed.
The above track records tell you which is the better template to follow. Besides, it can hardly hinder Dublin's burgeoning self-belief if they can lay down an early-season marker against their championship rivals. Winning breeds confidence and, in fairness, Dublin haven't been found wanting on either score in recent weeks.
It may be early days but, already, there are signs that they'll be a stronger team -- physically and mentally -- this season. This could be gleaned from their 14-man victory over Galway in the Walsh Cup semi-final, and also in their fourth quarter rally (after a prolonged barren period) to secure a day-one league draw in Waterford.
The past fortnight has been better again, with that uplifting Croke Park triumph against Tipperary followed by last Sunday's Walsh Cup final, when a depleted Dublin hung on in the face of a second-half onslaught from an understrength Kilkenny.
Conal Keaney's acquisition from football has been the most standout difference this season, but Dublin's improvement goes beyond any one player, however inspirational and prolific.
Still, these early spring shoots will count for little if momentum suddenly stalls. Twelve months ago, they endured a painful reminder that Offaly teams don't see Dublin as their betters, let alone equals.
Looking ahead to Tullamore, Daly reflected on how Offaly, Wexford and Dublin would have been the pre-league favourites to be battling against the drop -- but if his charges can win tomorrow, relegation would be "99 per cent" off the agenda and Dublin could be looking up the table rather than down. "I don't think it will have too much bearing on the championship match -- I think it's a different ball game. Championship is hugely important, but staying in Division One is massively important as well," the Dublin boss concluded.
Daly has delayed finalising a team, with Declan O'Dwyer and Ruairi Trainor almost certainly ruled out through injury, Stephen Hiney unlikely to be considered after an overseas trip and several more likely starters hoping to shake off the 'flu.
Offaly have major selection issues of their own, however, and the visitors are backed to avenge last year's heavy defeat.
ODDS: Offaly 21/10, Draw 10/1, Dublin 4/9