SUNDAY Division 1A NHL relegation play-off: Cork v Waterford, Páirc Uí Rinn, 3pm.
GIVEN that Waterford lost their three opening encounters and that Cork’s form dipped considerably after their opening night win over Kilkenny, it kind of became inevitable that this game would materialise.
After their very poor start to the Division 1A campaign, losing to Wexford, Tipperary and Kilkenny, Waterford have reinvented themselves to an extent with wins over Cork and Clare while Cork have lost their last four games to Clare, Wexford, Waterford and Tipperary.
Taking that into account, Waterford are entitled to start next Sunday’s showdown as slight favourites even if Cork have home advantage.
They had too on the last occasion in Pairc Ui Chaoimh a few weeks ago but Waterford ended their losing sequence that day.
The stakes are very high now in terms of league hurling for next season, defeat will consign one of last season’s All-Ireland semi-finalist’s to Division 1B in 2019.
Now that won’t be the end of the world for either considering that the title has gone to a team from that division over the past three years.
It could well be the case again this time with Limerick and Galway chasing the prize.
So to Pairc Ui Rinn on Sunday and what is likely to transpire.
Waterford will be coming up on the back of two decent wins over their hosts and more recently Clare last Sunday.
In stark contrast, Cork will start after losing their last four games and not too much, if any momentum behind them.
The national league, overall, has been a bit of a strange one with no great consistency.
Tipperary topped the table with three wins and two losses, similar to Kilkenny, Wexford and Clare.
Waterford won two games, lost three, the first three while Cork won just once against Kilkenny and lost the next four.
Amazingly, in the 25 group games, there wasn’t one draw and neither was there one in Division 1B After their opening night win over the Cats, Cork’s form has been far too patchy and nowhere near consistent enough from game to game.
They went through the games against Wexford and Clare without scoring for a combined total of 40 minutes and whilst they were just three points off Tipp last Sunday, the Premier County team had a tally of 20 wides and should have been through the gap much earlier.
Cork’s form overall has to be disconcerting although it must be stressed that they never had a full complement of players available for various reasons.
Harnedy’s dismissal against Waterford was a blow and the absence of the same player, Damien Cahalane, Mark Ellis and Eoin Cadogan hit last Sunday.
Conor Lehane and Alan Cadogan have missed games too but there will always be absentee concerns.
That is where the depth of resources comes into play, being able to replace key personnel when they are out.
Team boss John Meyler has given all the players at his disposal a fair crack of the whip and he and his selectors will know more than anybody else if some of them are ready or not for the white heat of a protracted Munster campaign.
Tim O’Mahony has put his hand up at centre-back, Sean O’Donoghue has done little wrong while others like Darren Browne, Robbie O’Flynn, Mikey Cahalane and Jack O’Connor have got game time.
Luke Meade should start on Sunday after his brace of points off the bench last Sunday while Harnedy’s return will bolster the attack much more.
Waterford had Paddy Curran is splendid form in their win over Clare and a haul of 1-13 will have raised his confidence levels quite a lot.
Michael Kearney posted four fine points from play while ‘Brick’ Walsh returned as well adding more steel to the side.
Darragh Fives could be back for Sunday while Ian O’Regan was an outstanding replacement for Stephen O’Keeffe last Sunday.
The Waterford half-backs will be crucial again here with Tadgh De Burca likely to operate again as the spare man.
Cork may have to address that situation a little differently this time but it will be 15 against 15, unlike the last occasion when Cork lost Harnedy early on.
His joust with Barry Coughlan on the edge of the square should be another interesting tussle in a contest that is likely to be very close.
Cork will want some bit of momentum behind them going into the Munster championship and this is their last opportunity to find some.
It will be two months to the day before Clare come to Cork for that crunch championship opener and the management will want to put down 12 or 13 of the team on paper.
Cork were in this situation two years ago, losing five group games before coming back strongly to defeat Galway in Pearse Stadium in a relegation decider.
Now the trick is to try and replicate that day and preserve their top-flight status.
And remember if you are relegated, Galway will waiting for you in Division 1B next season which might consign you to a long spell in that division.
Neither side wants to be going down so the likelihood here is that we are going to get a match of real intensity.
On home turf, Cork will want to stop Waterford from securing three wins on the trot against them and at the same time lay down some form of a marker for their Munster championship assignment.
It might be Cork’s turn this time and they get the slightest of votes.