All to play for in the endgame
KILKENNY: Brian Cody's men are odds-on to make the league final on May 1, although they won't be over-enamoured of this campaign to date.
Uncertainty surrounds the goalkeeping slot which isn't helping either PJ Ryan or David Herrity. Half-forward specialist Eoin Larkin must have the beads out every night praying to be shifted from midfield to his natural habitat.
Meanwhile, in the absence of the injured Henry Shefflin and Richie Power, attention has turned to Richie Hogan, but with mixed results. Power, their best forward in 2010, is now fit again, however, and Matthew Ruth, fresh from his debut against Dublin, looks to have a knack for scores -- these two could give them another edge as the competition heats up.
They're still only motoring at 60 per cent but it was a mark of quality that they were totally outplayed by Dublin in the first half of their recent encounter but still led at the break.
Verdict: Must get settled soon but they'll make the league final and the Leinster decider two months later before the bigger tests to come.
Having won their head-to-head with Dublin, Galway are in a good position to progress to the decider but it will depend on which Galway turns up. They have four good league wins but their collapse to Tipperary two weeks ago was worrying. It was their heaviest defeat since 1973 when they lost to Wexford by 19 points. With a number of injuries maybe they're keeping their powder dry for the championship but they need as many big games as possible to improve. They demonstrated their credentials with a dogged win over Kilkenny but there's just no explaining why the wheels fell off against Tipp.
How glad they'll be to see Damien Hayes and Joe Canning back, but they'll need Davy Collins and Fergal Moore in defence if they are to get anywhere. Despite their promise, they are vulnerable. A titanic Leinster semi-final clash with Dublin or Offaly awaits on June 11.
Verdict: Take them to the league final and use that as a platform for a stiff provincial championship test.
Dublin can play through an entire Division 1 campaign with only one defeat and still fail to make the final, meaning they need a better result than Galway this afternoon due to the head to head. After hitting 35 wides in their last two games, it's easy to be critical but after only hitting three wides against Waterford two months ago, they maybe need to adjust drills in training. They're definitely ploughing in the right direction, however.
Kilkenny legend Eddie Keher has tipped them to beat Cork today -- that's some vote of confidence for a team that needs belief. Surely, though, there's been too much talk about potential -- it's time the players themselves grasped the nettle and claimed a first league final appearance since 1946.
They need to stop hitting long, aimless balls either wide or into the opposing goalkeeper's hands. Brilliant and all as Gary Maguire is at the other end, he needs to make sure his rebounds don't drop at the feet of inrushing forwards because too many tap-ins have been conceded. Conal Keaney and Ryan O'Dwyer, though, have given them a huge shot in the arm in attack.
Verdict: Likely to miss out on league final but have very definite chance of making Leinster showpiece at the start of July. They won't fear Offaly or Galway.
In February, you got the impression Tipperary were cold-shouldering the league but if they beat Wexford, and Waterford and Cork both win, they're in the final, against most probably Kilkenny again. You don't want to stretch that rivalry but it would make compelling viewing once more.
Tipp have very little ball-work done and they're picking up more and more injuries. Shane Bourke, who cracked his finger in a recent challenge, will now be out of the spotlight after his incredible 3-4 against Galway.
Injuries apart, Tipp are refuelling and ready to hit top gear soon again. Their forwards' movement off the ball is delightful and they have superb touches and poise.
After a poor start to 2011, there were fears in the county that the champions were still in celebration mode.
It's taken them time to adjust to the new management but it's all taking shape again.
Verdict: After dropping five points thus far, reaching a league final would be an unexpected bonus but Tipp's eyes are already on May 29 and their clash with Cork. The winners of that game will fancy making the Munster final.
Their young team has shown enough to suggest they will be championship dark horses. Davy Fitzgerald continues to blend youth with the remaining chunk of experience still left in the squad -- the last day he gave starts to veterans Tony Browne and Eoin Murphy, while youngsters Brian O'Sullivan and Gavin Crotty got a chance to impress and did well. So far Fitzgerald has tried out 31 players in the league so there's no mistaking where his priorities lie.
He has clearly invested in youth and that's promising for the future as the game gets even faster at the highest level. Two observations, however: Shane Walsh has to start at full-forward or not at all. And if they leave the likes of Walsh and John Mullane isolated in attack like they did last year, they will end up in the same position.
Verdict: They will probably miss out on league final but their attention is on the Munster semi-final with Division 2 pacesetters Limerick. Win that and they have a chance to retain their provincial crown.
The only team in Division 1 with nothing to play for. They could have made the league final but there have been many personnel changes during the campaign resulting in lost momentum. After a campaign of experimentation they do field a strong team today, however, which is a sign that championship is looming. Denis Walsh will argue that he has fielded competitive sides all the way through spring but his selections have been hard to fathom.
The positives are the form of tenacious newcomer Stephen McDonnell, who has impressed with every outing at right corner-back. Cian McCarthy has also had a great campaign which is good to see after he was thrown so far in at the deep end last season. Luke O'Farrell may be diminutive in frame but he knows where the posts are.
But they have been guilty of wasting possession in games and overall seem dependent on the tried-and-trusted warriors of the noughties. In this league we have yet to witness the warrior mentality they showed in the championship against Tipp last season as they clumsily lost two games by a point.
Verdict: They face Tipp on May 29 knowing they haven't lost to them in their last three competitive outings. But have they enough spark in the forwards to outscore the Premier County and avoid a trek through the qualifiers? That's debatable.
Offaly were not happy with Cork's slip-up to Wexford which firmly placed them back under a relegation cloud. But Joe Dooley has been steadily building his team's confidence and has tried everything from bringing the likes of Mick Cordial and Dylan Hayden back in from the cold to giving a stack of youngsters a shot.
They have a never-say-die attitude but scoring 1-19 against quality opposition like Waterford and still losing is not good enough. They can concede sloppy goals and waste chances too, although Joe Bergin, Shane Dooley and Derek Molloy are as dangerous as any other team's attacking options.
Verdict: Likely to lose today but still avoid relegation. If they get all their players fit and tighten up at both ends they could have a right crack at Dublin in the Leinster championship.
They look doomed for life in Division 2 once more. Their loss to Offaly has almost ensured that. However, it's been a while since a Wexford side managed an average of 0-19 during a league and Colm Bonnar's men have done that even with problems in the half-forward line. They show a bit of heart too. For instance, they were nine points behind at half-time against Kilkenny but outscored the Cats 0-11-0-7 in the second half. As a group, they're lacking confidence and will find it hard to keep the score down against an experimental Tipperary side.
Verdict: Relegation looks certain and while there may be some summer respite with a championship quarter-final against the winners of Antrim and Laois, the reward for winning that is a semi-final against Kilkenny.
Sunday Indo Sport