Hurling season begins with clash of champions Limerick and contenders Tipperary
National Hurling League round one
Division One Group A
Limerick v Tipperary
(LIT Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, 5.30pm)
GAME day at long last. Is it time to lay down a marker for the season, or an opportunity to get some hard yards into the players' legs pre-Championship?
It's the former of course and the clash of reigning All-Ireland champions Limerick and 2019 winners at the Gaelic Grounds is a curtain-raiser that will blast out any remaining pre-season cobwebs for players and supporters alike.
It's a repeat of last year's opener which three in-a-row NHL-chasing Limerick won 2-24 to 0-18 at Semple Stadium. That victory set the tone for an extraordinary season that saw John Kiely's side win five out of five in the League and go on to clinch the Munster Championship (a run that included another win over Tipp by nine points) and of course the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
There are nine survivors from the team that started the All-Ireland final victory over Waterford six months ago in Kiely's line-up for this evening's clash but Dan Morrissey, Declan Hannon, Graeme Mulcahy and Aaron Gillane are absent and 2020 Hurlers of the Year Gearoid Hegarty and Cian Lynch have to be content with places on the bench for this evening's clash.
Richie English has recovered from a knee injury to start the eagerly-awaited opener with Sean Finn manning the edge of the square in front of Allstar goalkeeper Nickie Quaid.
There are attacking berths for Na Piarsaigh trio Conor Boylan, Adrian Breen and David Dempsey while captain for the day William O'Donoghue and Darragh O'Donovan complete midfield.
Meanwhile, Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy will hope that youngsters like Paddy Cadell, Robert Byrne and Jake Morris make their mark alongside established stars like Noel McGrath and the Mahers, Padraic and Brendan.
Limerick: N Quaid; A Costello, S Finn, R English; D Byrnes, K Hayes, B Nash; W O'Donoghue, D O'Donovan; T Morrissey, D Reidy, C Boylan; A Breen, S Flanagan, D Dempsey
Betting: Limerick 2/5 Tipperary 5/2 Draw 10/1
Westmeath v Galway (TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar, 2pm)
THE Tribesmen had 17 points to spare in this meeting last year and they went on finish joint-second in the table while whipping boys Westmeath lost five out of five, conceding 11 goals and 105 points in the process.
Galway were All-Ireland semi-finalists last year and played out a memorable clash with Limerick before losing out by three points. Meanwhile, back-to-back defeats against Antrim and Kerry meant Shane O'Brien's Westmeath missed out on the Joe McDonagh Cup final.
Joe Canning is a notable omission from the Galway starting line-up. Canning was reported to be in fine form in training last week, according to manager Shane O'Neill but the Portumna clubman has had to settle for a place on the bench for the trip to Mullingar. Kinvara's Conor Whelan captains the side from corner forward in the absence of Padraic Mannion.
Galway: E Murphy; S Loftus, G McInerney, J Fitzpatrick; A Harte, S Cooney, F Burke; J Coen, C Mannion; C Cooney, E Niland, B Concannon; J Mannion, N Burke, C Whelan
Betting: Westmeath 16/1 Galway 1/66 Draw 33/1
Division One Group B
Dublin v Kilkenny (Parnell Park, Dublin, 3.30pm)
TWO Billy Ryan goals killed off Dublin in this fixture last year and Kilkenny's performance that day was viewed as a signal of intent. However, the Dubs came roaring back at the Cats in the Leinster Championship and there was just a point between the sides at the final whistle. Kilkenny did go on to win Leinster but were ambushed by Waterford at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. Brian Cody's men will aim to start as they mean to go on but they do so without Colin Fennelly who is unavailable this season.
Kilkenny: E Murphy; C Wallace, H Lawlor, P Deegan; D Corcoran, P Walsh, C Browne; C Buckley, R Leahy; J Donnelly, A Mullen, M Keoghan; J Bergin, TJ Reid, E Cody
Betting: Dublin 9/4 Kilkenny 4/9 Draw 10/1
Hurling League round one
Division One Group A
Cork v Waterford (Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork, 3.45pm)
LAST year's surprise All-Ireland finalists make the short trip to Leeside to begin their 2021 campaign and neutrals will hope for a repeat of last year's spectacular. Goals from Conor Lehane and Shane Kingston got the Rebels off to a whirlwind start but, with the Bennett brothers Kieran and Stephen leading the charge, Liam Cahill's men recovered to win 1-24 to 3-17.
Waterford will be without injured Tadhg De Burca and Cahill will have his work cut out replacing him but Cork have gaps to fill too. Long-serving goalkeeper Anthony Nash has retired and Aidan Walsh, Conor Lehane, Christopher Joyce and Chris O'Leary will not feature this season.
Betting: Cork 10/11 Waterford 11/10 Draw 9/1
Division One Group B
Antrim v Clare (Corrigan Park, Belfast, 1pm)
A LONG trip up north for the Bannermen and at the end of it they face a newly-promoted Antrim side keen to build on the rich promise of last year.
It's a step up in class for the Glensmen but Clare have issues. Podge Collins will play football this year, 2019 Allstar Peter Duggan remains in Australia and Seadna More is also unavailable. However, John Conlon returns to captain a side that includes experienced personnel and the cutting edge of Tony Kelly.
Clare: E Quilligan; P Donnellan, C Cleary, P Flanagan; D Ryan, J Conlon, A McCarthy; C Galvin, T Kelly; C Malone, D Reidy, C Guilfoyle; R Taylor, A Shanagher, S O Donnell
Betting: Antrim 8/1 Clare 1/16 Draw 20/1
Wexford v Laois (Chadwicks Wexford Park, 1.45pm)
BOTH sides are weakened by injuries. Form deserted Wexford, Leinster champions in 2019, last season and Davy Fitzgerald will demand better this year. Home advantage will be crucial against ‘Cheddar' Plunkett's Laois.
Betting: Wexford 1/14 Laois 15/2 Draw 20/1
Kerry v Down (Austin Stack Park, Tralee, 1pm)
THE Kingdom, Joe McDonagh Cup and Division 2A runners-up last year, host a Down side that will be allowed no time to find their feet after promotion last year. The Ardsmen were Christy Ring finalists in 2020 and will be keen to test themselves at this level.
Betting: Kerry 1/10 Down 6/1 Draw 14/1
Meath v Offaly (Páirc Tailteann, Navan, 2pm)
OFFALY won this meeting by two points last year and have the scoring power to repeat the dose against a Meath side that recorded victories over Wicklow and Mayo in the League. However, they lost all four Joe McDonagh Cup fixtures and will meet the Faithful county in the Christy Ring this season.
Betting: Meath 2/1 Offaly 4/9 Draw 9/1
Carlow v Wicklow (Netwatch Cullen Park, Carlow, 2pm)
Betting: Carlow 1/25 Wicklow 9/1 Draw 20/1
Donegal v Roscommon (O'Donnell Park, Letterkenny, 2pm)
Betting: Donegal 11/8 Roscommon 4/6 Draw 9/1
Mayo v Derry (Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar, 3pm)
Betting: Mayo 13/8 Derry 4/7 Draw 9/1