Focused Antrim can compete with the best says hurling captain Conor McKinley
After one round of the Joe McDonagh Cup, the newly-created tier two hurling championship is already living up to expectations.
It was always going to be an unpredictable competition given the comparable levels of the six teams involved, but the opening three games have evidenced perfectly just how difficult a competition this will be to win.
Antrim, Ulster's sole representatives, faced Meath in their opening game on Saturday.
Antrim had failed to beat the Royals in their previous three outings but, after trailing by six points after the opening quarter, the Saffrons went on to win by 16 points.
Laois, pre-competition favourites, then lost their opening game by just three points to Westmeath, who came away from O'Moore Park in triumph for the first time in 50 years. Kerry and Carlow then served up a tit-for-tat nail-biter on Sunday, with Carlow coming from a point down on 69 minutes to snatch the win in injury time.
Antrim captain Conor McKinley didn't expect anything less.
Between meetings in the Walsh Cup, Allianz League, Christy Ring Cup and Leinster qualifiers, these teams know each other inside out.
“We've played each other so often, it's nearly like playing club games. You know each other inside out, you know the traits of certain players and that sort of thing,” said McKinley.
Antrim continue their quest for a place in the July 1st decider - which will be played as a curtain-raiser to the Leinster final at Croke Park - with a home game against Carlow at Corrigan Park on Saturday.
It means a hectic schedule of five games in seven weeks, but the prize of a McDonagh Cup medal -and perhaps more alluringly - a place in the MacCarthy Cup awaits the two finalists.
“Everything is set towards the Leinster final and they have to work back from that date so the games are condensed into a short period of time. The good side of it is that you're getting plenty of games and whoever recovers best and gets that wee bit of luck with injuries will have a big advantage,” said the Dunloy clubman.
“We are under no illusions as to how competitive it is but that's what we're after… good competitive championship fixtures. It's not like the league where you can target matches where you think the points might come from because every game in the Joe McDonagh is 50-50. That's not a cliché, all you have to do is look at past results.
“All the teams have the same aspiration of getting to the Liam MacCarthy. It's the carrot for everyone. No disrespect to the other tiers, we all want to be in that top tier and we believe that's where we belong and that's what we started to train for back in October.
“Whoever wins the Joe McDonagh, their momentum is going to be good going into the MacCarthy Cup, but we can't look past the next game because if you take your eye off the ball you're asking for trouble.”
After this week's clash against Carlow, they host Laois a week later, and have a week's break before travelling to Westmeath.
The group games finish with a home tie against Kerry on 9 June.
Antrim sit top of the Joe McDonagh Cup table on points difference, but the competition is still anybody's.
Laois were installed as pre-competition favourites ahead of Westmeath, with Antrim and Carlow joint third favourites.
After one round of games, the bookies now quote Westmeath as favourites with Carlow as second favourites in front of Antrim who are a generous 100-30.
Laois have now dropped to fourth favourites. That will no doubt change several times over the course of this competition.
However McKinley is concerned only by what Antrim can do to ensure that the Joe McDonagh Cup's first journey from Croke Park is a northward one.
Despite relegation from Division 1B, Antrim can take plenty of positives from the league.
They ran All-Ireland champions Galway close, lost to Dublin by a point, and beat Offaly. That ensured a relegation play-off against Laois which, McKinley says, the Saffrons “let slip”.
“As long as I've been with Antrim, it's as good a league campaign as I've been part of.
“Obviously the way it ended against Laois was disappointing but I feel we beat ourselves.
“We hit a lot of wides and missed a penalty.
“When you're beaten by a better team it's a lot easier to take,” said the 29-year-old who is in his ninth year on the Antrim senior panel.
“I felt we just let it slip on the day through our mistakes.
“You look at the Galway game, we were 10 minutes away for beating the All-Ireland champions and the Dublin game was a one-point swing… belief is a big thing and if you can't take belief out of that, when can you take it?”
McKinley added: “The important thing is to learn from, and don't repeat past mistakes. You can't keep making the same mistakes and expect to have different results.
“We've shown that when we're in the right frame of mind we can put it up to the best in the country.”