Pressure on Kilkenny rivals to lay down early Leinster marker
THIS is the weekend when Brian Cody casts a curious eye in the direction of Tullamore and Mullingar to assess imminent threat levels.
He will have taken more than a passing interest in Tipperary's stuttering start to Championship 2012 last Sunday, but what's happening in Munster is of no immediate concern. Kilkenny's focus will remain local for now as they plot a strategy for the Leinster championship, for which they are 4/11 favourites.
It suggests that all they have to do is turn up for the semi-final in three weeks' time and the final two weeks later, but, in reality it's not that simple. Whatever about the Kilkenny supporters, Cody and his players know that. In all probability, Kilkenny will have to beat Dublin and Galway to win Leinster, a double assignment which carries real risks.
For while Kilkenny have dealt capably with both in the championship over recent seasons, the law of averages suggests that, sooner or later, the break will come. After all, Kilkenny have lost only once in Leinster (against Wexford 2004) in the past 13 seasons. It's a remarkable run which has to end sometime.
All six of Kilkenny's remaining Leinster rivals will be in action this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how impressive the three winners look as they jostle in the queue attempting to challenge Kilkenny.
Offaly v Wexford
Home comforts to make the difference
It has long been a feature of Offaly teams that they play better in the championship than the league. Even in their All-Ireland-winning days, they often struggled through the league, almost as if it were a nuisance which had to be endured. It would be followed by questions about how geared-up they were for the championship, only for the answers to be provided in most emphatic terms.
And while Offaly's championship star has dimmed, they are still capable of a summer flourish as they showed two years ago when taking Galway to a replay before losing narrowly and last year when they pushed Dublin, who had won the league title a few weeks previously, all the way to the finishing line.
Offaly are good at making the most of what they have. Their style is based on straight-forward values where they move the ball quickly and don't over-complicate things. That will be very much their policy this evening as they attempt to live up to a favourite's tag which doesn't fit all that well with them anymore.
This time it's based on Wexford's championship woes over the last two Leinster campaigns, in which they lost heavily to Galway and Kilkenny respectively, but Offaly would do well to remember three years ago when they lost by seven points down in Wexford Park.
And while Wexford had a poor league campaign, eventually surviving in 1B after beating Laois in a relegation play-off, they did beat Offaly in the group clash in February, thanks to a late burst when they scored 3-1 in the final seven minutes.
Still, there's no point pretending that Wexford hurling is in a good place just now. They could be heading there over the next few years as the fruits of their development programmes are harvested, but, until then, Wexford will be relying on the county's famous spirit to camouflage the deficiencies.
As for now, Wexford will be encouraged by their league win over Offaly and by a recent challenge game result where Kilkenny hammered Offaly. However, you would still have to fancy Offaly to make home advantage count and book a semi-final place.
Dublin v Laois
Blues warm-up for Kilkenny
Every fence is high enough to bring down a horse unless it jumps properly. So, while this evening's joust with Laois is seen as no more than a prep run for Dublin before they take on Kilkenny, they will still need to get the fundamentals right. Deep down, Laois would always believe they have a chance against Dublin, which is a help, but as things currently stand, they will need a whole lot more than past memories to avoid a sizeable defeat.
It's disappointing that Teddy McCarthy can't call on the talent available in Laois. What is it with lads that they don't want to play for their county? It doesn't say much for them, to be honest. Niall Rigney managed to get them all out when he was in charge, but now some of them have gone missing again, leaving Laois weaker than they should be.
And since Laois have limited resources anyway, they can't afford to have lads checking out. Dublin will be too strong this evening, but it will still be a nice work-out for Daly's boys. It's almost a year since Dublin, the then league champions, beat Galway in Tullamore in the Leinster semi-final, increasing supporters' hopes that they were on track for the big All-Ireland breakthrough.
Remarkably, they have won only one of 10 league and championship games since then, which is worrying from a confidence viewpoint. Still, they were close enough in many of the league games to suggest there was very little wrong with the overall package. Dublin are targeting everything on the championship this year, starting with the big showdown against Kilkenny on June 23. Laois won't upset that plan.
Westmeath v Galway
Different feel than last year
Westmeath matched Galway until the final quarter of the corresponding clash last year... and therein rests a tale. Those close to the Galway team dismissed it as "one of those things" and promised everything would fall into place for the next outing against Dublin. They didn't.
Galway gave a woeful performance in the Leinster semi-final and while they improved in the qualifiers they capsized in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Waterford. It all pointed to an unevenness which was there against Westmeath in the first game, so sometimes early impressions are accurate.
Galway have more structure this year and I'd be surprised if they didn't put down an early championship marker with all-the-way dominance tomorrow.