WITH Dublin and Laois getting proceedings underway in the Leinster hurling championship on Saturday evening, the next seven weeks or so are set to provide us with numerous questions as to who will be the top dogs in the race for the McCarthy Cup that concludes with the final on December 13th.
Dublin and Laois in normal circumstances wouldn’t set the pulses racing but when these two last collided in the championship of 2019 the game became one of the stories of the campaign.
Dublin had performed very well in the lead up to that game, defeating Galway and drawing with Wexford to emerge from the group stage of the Leinster championship.
Laois were next up in a preliminary game in the All-Ireland with the Dubs confidently expected to win.
But the very opposite was the case, Laois producing one of the county’s best performances for years to win by a couple of points.
They subsequently lost an All-Ireland quarter-final to Tipperary but not before giving a very good account of themselves.
So, Dublin are sure to be in a very vengeful mood on Saturday when they’ll try to set the record straight in the opening game of this year’s hurling championship.
So, for openers, this game might be worth tuning in to on Saturday night.
There’s another game too on Saturday, not in the Leinster or All-Ireland championship but in the Christy Ring Cup.
It features a meeting between Kildare and Offaly, yes Offaly, the once mighty Offaly now playing in the third tier of the All-Ireland hurling championship.
It wasn’t a hundred years ago that the Faithful County were winning All-Irelands, in fact, it is just 22 since they won their last in 1998.
Some of the finest hurlers in the country at the time donned the colours and between 1981 and ‘98 they took home the title on four occasions.
Remember the Dooleys, Joe and Johnny, Pat Fleury, Pat Delaney, Joachim Kelly, Johnny Pilkington, Michael Duignan, Liam Currams and so on.
But that was then and this is now and it illustrates how a once top county can fall from grace.
And their fall has been extraordinary. They have endured some desperate times in recent seasons and it’s a long ascent back to where they once were.
Now they have former Kilkenny great Michael Fennelly at the helm and maybe he can get ball rolling again Offaly against Kildare in a senior hurling game would have been unthinkable once but that’s where Offaly hurling is at right now.
WE’ll keep an eye on the outcome One of the biggest questions to be answered in the coming weeks is, can Tipperary retain the McCarthy Cup for the first time since 1965?
After being successful in 1971, 1989, 1991, 2001, 2010, 2016, they failed the following year to hold on to the title.
Retaining a title is never easy, of course, and here in Cork, Sarsfields and Newtownshandrum won four titles each since 2000 but never retained it.
And they were two of the best club teams of the past 20 years.
Perhaps the shorter and sharper championship this season will benefit Tipp this time. To take the direct route they will just have four games to play, two in Munster, two in the All-Ireland.
Easier said than done but that might suit their older players who have had a long break and didn’t have to cope with the rigours of the group format of recent seasons.
The return of Patrick ‘Bonner’ Maher from injury should be a considerable boost.
Ultimately, it may all boil down to which county has the strongest squad.
Here in Cork this year we saw how important squad depth is and it was probably the difference between Blackrock winning the county and not.
When their need was at its greatest in some games they were able to call on players like Tadhg Deasy, John Cashman, young Robbie Cotter and Alan O’Callaghan and their introductions swung the issue, particularly against UCC and in the final against Glen Rovers.
Winning teams have that depth of resources and that is a proven theory.
Entering this season’s championship the strong perception is that Limerick possess that type of squad depth.
However, the loss of Mike Casey and Ritchie English only returning from injury has to be a worry for them defensively.
We will know a lot more after Sunday’s opener with Clare.