Rebels keen to show their intent in opener with Limerick
FOR all of the unhappiness surrounding the Allianz hurling league structures over the winter, the six-team format at least dispenses any sense of shadow-boxing.
Cork and Limerick meet in Division 1B on Saturday night at Pairc Ui Rinn for a game that, with only five outings guaranteed, could go a long way towards deciding who earns promotion back to the top division.
There is no second chance either. There is no longer a Division 1B final – which Limerick have lost for the last two years – meaning the team who finishes top of the pile will return to the top flight for the 2015 season.
As ever, Division 1B looks competitive but should the league follow last season's championship form, the meeting of the Munster champions and the beaten All-Ireland finalists looks likely to provide the group winners.
And for a game with real significance, there's little in the way of form to go on. Limerick played only two games in the Waterford Crystal Cup, hammering IT Tralee before losing to Clare.
Cork, on the other hand, didn't enter the pre-season competition and had their first outing a fortnight ago when they beat UCC in the Canon O'Brien Cup.
There are other subplots in a rivalry that has picked up pace of late. Donal O'Grady, as Limerick joint-manager with TJ Ryan, looks to put one over his native county and former team-mate Jimmy Barry-Murphy, while Cork full-forward Patrick Horgan also gets the chance to atone for his controversial sending-off in last year's Munster final against the Treaty men.
Horgan knows a win is "vital" as the Rebels look to bounce straight back from last year's relegation.
"It's a big one for us. It's the same for them too I suppose," he said. "We'll see what we can do this weekend and drive on from there for the rest of the season. But a win is something we have to get – two points against Limerick is vital."
TJ Ryan is likely to field a less familiar side. They have opted to give the Na Piarsaigh contingent a break after their club campaign came to end last weekend, meaning Shane Dowling, Kevin Downes, Cathal King, David Breen and Alan Dempsey won't see action for up to a month.
Seamus Hickey is out with a long- term knee injury, Declan Hannon won't return until the latter stages of the league and Niall Moran has retired.
But county footballer Aidan Walsh could be set to make his competitive bow for the senior hurlers as he embarks on his dual career.
And Horgan is determined to make up for last year's All-Ireland final heartbreak against Clare.
"We came back training harder than ever at the start of this year and we want to try and go one step further," he said. "It's week after week from now on, which is a good thing.
"But realistically, we are back to square one like everyone else. We are not guaranteed anything – we are not even guaranteed that we'll win a game this year.
"So we have to work hard this year to get back again."