DESPITE initial reservations regarding how some counties might approach the NHL this season because of the new championship schedule in the provinces, the secondary competition has come up with the goods so far.
Even after just two games, it’s fairly clear who the four teams are going to be that will reach the quarter-finals from Division 1B and they will be Limerick, Galway, Dublin and Offaly.
It isn’t a certainty that Offaly will make it through because, in the evidence presented so far, Laois and Antrim could take points off them.
Offaly have certainly been a Jekyll and Hyde side thus far, giving their long-suffering supporters cause for optimism with their very impressive display and victory over Dublin but that was followed by a right thumping from Limerick.
You wouldn’t expect them to get anything from their game with Galway so it will be imperative for them to gain maximum points from the assignments with Laois and Antrim.
Things are far more difficult to predict in Division 1A but they should become a lot clearer after the three games next weekend.
Given the fact that Wexford and Clare have full points, they have a certain amount of margin for error in their games against Tipperary and Cork respectively and the loss of points in those games would be far from catastrophic.
Cork have less margin for error after their loss in Wexford Park while it’s a similar story with Tipperary who are also bracketed on two points.
That leaves us with Kilkenny and Waterford and their clash next Sunday in Walsh Park is, arguably, the most important of the three fixtures in 1A.
Waterford appear to have no interest at all in a protracted league run but, at the same time, relegation would send out a lot of wrong signals and could be troubling for the management too.
Kilkenny, if you add in the frees shoot-out with Wexford in the Walsh Cup final, have now lost three games on the trot and Brian Cody will not be happy about that.
Another loss for them and by the same token for Waterford will put them under severe pressure in making the knockout stages and at the same time plunge them closer to a relegation showdown.
Clare appear to be one of the teams that are putting a lot of store into this league and having beaten two of the so-called big three already, Tipp and Kilkenny, taking care of Cork next Sunday in Ennis would add another feather to their cap at this point in time.
Of course, all the Munster clashes in the current league campaign are dress rehearsals for the Munster championship and they provide the counties with an early opportunity of putting down a marker.
Limerick, being outside of Division 1A, won’t encounter any Munster opposition until the knockout stages.
Home games in the league are meant to give teams an advantage and so far that has been more or less the case.
Cork defeated Kilkenny at home, Wexford defeated Cork at home, Tipp defeated Waterford in Thurles and Clare defeated Kilkenny in Cusack Park.
Home advantage, of course, takes on huge significance in the Munster championship with all five counties having two games to play in front of their own fans and two more away.
The same applies in Leinster and for the All-Ireland champions, Galway it marks a new beginning in so far as Pearse Stadium will be hosting a Leinster championship clash for the very first since they came into it in 2011.
That has been a big bone of contention since then, having no game at home but that all changes now and their first game in the new Leinster schedule is a real blockbuster, welcoming Kilkenny to Salthill.
The margins are going to be very tight in the new championship format, particularly in Munster where the playing field would appear to be more level than it ever has been.
And for that reason, counties are going to have to take full advantage in their two home games.
For the record, Cork will play Limerick and Clare in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and they will be away to Tipperary and Waterford.
Given that schedule and the fact that there will be an 11,500 capacity ceiling in Walsh Park with Waterford having the vast majority of the crowd behind them that day, Cork will almost certainly have to win their two home games.
But it’s first things first and the second visit of the year to the Banner County this year.
The Cork team that lost up there in the Munster League in early January will be much changed next Sunday from that day and there might well be just a handful of players remaining in the starting 15.
That day was notable for the difficulty that Clare full-forward Peter Duggan caused early on at full-forward before Eoin Cadogan went back to steady the ship.
One can never predict with any great degree of certainty the outcome of a league game at this time of the year and sometimes the only consistency is the inconsistency.
It must be factored in too how a management team will look at a league game containing the same opponents that you will meet again not too long afterwards in the far more important championship assignment.
They might look at it in two ways, put down a marker for later on or alternatively not want to give too much away regarding tactics or the positioning of certain players.
One way or the other, Cusack Park should be an interesting place next Sunday and a Cork win up there for the younger players involved would do no harm at all and set things up perfectly for the visit of Waterford a week later.