Antrim hurlers can breathe out as they open account to weakened Limerick

Darren Gleeson looking to 2024 with Antrim
Darren Gleeson looking to 2024 with Antrim Darren Gleeson will be hoping to unearth a few new players in 2024 with no relegation from the top flight coming as a welcome boost
Allianz National Hurling League Division 1B: Limerick v Antrim (Sunday, Semple Stadium, Thurles, 2pm)

THE National Hurling League will be a bit of a weird set-up this spring. Some games will feel like the twilight zone with another rejig happening in a perpetual series of National Hurling League rejigs next season.

The top three in Division 1A and Division 1B will form a new top division next season with the two fourth-placed teams battling it out for the seventh and final spot.

Consequently, there won’t be relegation from 1A or 1B at the end of this League campaign and the top two teams in Division 2A will move up to form a new-look Division 1B.

From Antrim’s perspective, this will be music to Darren Gleeson’s ears. It’ll allow the Antrim manager to develop a few new players over the next couple of months before the Leinster SHC round robin gets underway against Kilkenny on April 21.

The intensity and desperately squeezed nature of Antrim’s seasons have been serious.

The physical and emotional energy both management and players have expended to hold onto their top-flight status in both League and Championship have been off the charts.

While there remains a major incentive to try and push into the top three – or more likely – pinch a fourth-place berth, Gleeson can breathe out for the first time since he took the post over four years ago.

Antrim officially enter the post-Neil McManus era – the unmistakable totem of the team for close to two decades having announced his retirement a few weeks after the Saffrons sealed their Leinster SHC place by beating Westmeath in Mullingar last June.

And if some players wanted to step off the inter-county carousel, this was the time to do it, as Gleeson surveys the depth of his squad shorn of regulars.

Antrim are running with a reduced Dunloy contingent – unsurprising, given the club’s successes and lack of a proper break over the past few seasons.

But, by the time Championship comes around, the Antrim line-up will probably look more familiar than the teams Gleeson runs with in the League.

Nigel Elliott, Ryan Elliott, Seaan Elliott and Keelan Molloy are taking time out while Eoin O’Neill is living abroad and is unlikely to return any time soon.

Limerick manager John Kiely holding Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2023
Limerick manager John Kiely celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after winning it for the fourth consecutive time in 2023 Limerick manager John Kiely celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup after winning it for the fourth consecutive time in 2023. Kiely is likely to field a makeshift side against Antrim on Sunday (Seamus Loughran)

Phelim Duffin, Ryan McGarry, Conal Cunning and Eoin McFerran are still around the panel and all played in the Walsh Cup defeat to Dublin last month.

It’s a big year too for Loughgiel Shamrocks duo Rian McMullan and Paul Boyle, both of whom are more than capable of coping with the inter-county rigors.

Cushendall’s Eoghan Campbell, Paddy Burke, Fred McCurry, Ronan McAteer and young Joseph McLaughlin have declared for the county this year.

Antrim’s task between now and the end of the League is to finish above Dublin and Westmeath, realistically.

Limerick, Tipperary and Galway look a step too far especially with no McManus around and the thinning Dunloy crew.

On paper, Antrim couldn’t have received a more difficult opener than four-in-a-row All-Ireland champions Limerick – but, in all likelihood, they will be facing a shadow outfit in Thurles on Sunday.

Deprived of matches due to last month’s inclement weather, Limerick boss John Kiely fielded only a couple of his All-Ireland winners in the Dillon Quirke Memorial match with Tipperary last weekend.

While Kiely was disappointed with his side’s lack of match practice, Limerick’s whole raison d’etre in 2024 will be their drive for five on the All-Ireland stage.

The League is the League. They’ll be road-testing plenty of players over the next few weeks but will want to secure a top three berth before turning their attentions to a Munster Championship showdown with Tipp at the end of April.

Antrim is the perfect opening fixture for Limerick. The only saving grace from an Antrim perspective is that they won’t be facing too many of Limerick’s big hitters in Thurles on Sunday.