As the club championship now fades into the background the inter-county season goes centre stage. Antrim and Laois were the unlikely pair to launch the hurling series last weekend, Dinny Cahill’s men notching a first ever win in Leinster. For Tipperary the build up intensifies. A win over Dublin at Athy marked the final pre-championship ‘friendly’ ahead of Cork’s visit on Sunday week.

So another championship season has been launched, though without frills or fanfare. You can stage-manage high-profile pairings to launch the league, but the championship system prevents such manipulation. Antrim and Laois are hardly glamour sides but at least they seem to have served up a decent contest at Portlaoise, unlike that football caper in Donegal.

Inevitably it’s that time of year when championship structures come under scrutiny and everyone has a view on a preferable system. I note Sean Og O’Hailpin sees the back-door method as having run its course. He’s anticipating a return to the one-chance knock-out system of former times. Surely not. All that training and investment of resources for just one day? The system may well change but it will hardly go back to the old days.

Anyway there’s no change to the system for this season so we might as well look ahead to what’s in store. For the first time in almost a decade we go in as champions and as the fancy of many to retain the title. We’d prefer of course to be under the radar but given the evidence of 2010 our present ranking is unavoidable. So who will provide our toughest opposition and how is the championship likely to pan out?

Actually I think the championship this year has the potential to be one of the most open for over a decade. Kilkenny’s monopoly of events in recent times was great for that county but it did lead to a sense of boring inevitability for everyone else. Now that the monopoly has been broken others feel emboldened.

For starters Leinster has possibilities that we haven’t seen since the likes of Wexford and Offaly went into decline. The transplanting of Antrim and especially Galway into that province promises to enliven the competition, even if last year’s experience was a disappointment. Antrim have already left their mark this time. Galway, as usual cross the Shannon full of hope and anticipation, while league champions, Dublin, add yet another dimension to what should be a competitive Leinster campaign. For once Kilkenny appear to have real opposition.

Dublin’s impact will be interesting. Their league win has generated a real buzz in the hurling world but one bad championship day and it’s back to basics, a sort of repairing of the bubble. This time they carry real expectation into the championship but even their opener against Offaly is a potential banana skin. And in the cautious language of Anthony Daly you sense an acute awareness of the pitfalls his team must dodge.

Remember just twelve months ago Dublin fell to Antrim and all the gains of recent years were at risk of being squandered if Daly walked. Luckily he persevered and their 2011 season so far has been one of real consolidation helped in part by the capture of Ryan O’Dwyer from Tipperary and Conal Keaney from the Dublin footballers. They’re real contenders now though the wilder expectations of some will do them no favours. An All Ireland semi-final place, perhaps, would represent huge progress for the Dubs in 2011.

Galway stand in their way and that possible clash should be a highlight of the Leinster series. For Galway it’s yet another season of great expectations. 2010 was hugely disappointing. Their Leinster form was miserable and then that one-point defeat to Tipperary in the quarter-final cut really deep. Incidentally Eoin Kelly’s foul on Ollie Canning late in that game was an especially sore point. It deprived them of the corner back for those final crucial minutes as the winning scores came from that flank. Incidentally I’m also reliable told it cost James Owens the All Ireland final because of his refusal to upgrade Kelly’s yellow card to a red.

Galway’s hopes centre very much on talisman, Joe Canning. 2010 was a dip year for Canning followed by a very restful winter with Portumna going out of the Galway championship and injury keeping him sidelined for much of the league series. Their hope now is that he’ll rebound for the championship and fulfil that awesome potential he displayed in previous years. If he doesn’t it could be another lean year for Galway.

Still I expect Galway to come through that side of the Leinster draw to meet Kilkenny in the final. Wexford have done really well to survive in division one of the league but gone are the days when they’d ambush Kilkenny to cause a major upset. The ‘cats’ will be watched with extra keen eyes this time. A lot of pundits have been quick to write their epitaph but I’m not so sure. If Canning is central to Galway then Shefflin is similarly pivotal to Kilkenny. Once they get all their troops back they’ll again be formidable, if not quite as fearsome as previous years. I expect them to win Leinster.

The Munster championship this year welcomes back a resurgent Limerick following their unbeaten progress through division two. How far that progress will take them, however, is another matter. Donal O’Grady is shrewd and has been careful to play down their league success because I suspect even he is wondering just how they’ll react when they face top flight opposition.

They face a tough opener against Waterford. We have become familiar with two boring assumptions in the hurling world in recent years: Galway will make the breakthrough and Waterford are a spent force. Both counties continue to defy such pronouncements. For all his sideline dramatics Davy Fitzgerald has brought a structure and steadiness to Waterford hurling. He played much of the recent league short-staffed and appears to have built a sturdy panel. Come championship time a heavy weight will again rest on the able shoulders of such as John Mullane but the support players seem to be of better quality now than in the past. I expect it will be too much for Limerick in the opener.

This year we have the unusual sight of Cork folk talking down Cork hurling. With football thriving Leeside one senses that hurling is in the shadow at present and that most confident of counties is anything but confident approaching this campaign. Their problem appears to be the lack of quality material coming through to reinforce the survivors from previous All Ireland wins. That, plus the erratic decision to jettison Sean O’ O’Hailpin, has led to downbeat assessments of their prospects all round.

Still, while they may lack the consistency to carry through to All Ireland success, one senses that on a given day they could ambush anyone, even Tipperary in Thurles on Sunday week. Nonetheless the reigning champs did enough during the league to convince most that the changeover in management has been smooth and that a repeat of 2010 by the Lee is unlikely this time in Semple. We hope so.

Should Tipp get through then there’s a semi-final date with Clare where again we’d be widely expected to advance. Not getting out of division two was a blow to Ger O’Loughlin and his young side. Most pundits see potential in the county following an U21 All Ireland and a near miss by the minors last September – but perhaps not yet. Too many retirements meant that the youngsters carried a heavy burden on their promotion. Contrast that with Tipperary where the likes of Noel McGrath and Padraig Maher and Brendan Maher had the guiding hands of Kelly, Corbett, Cummins and co. to steer them through the choppy waters of inter-county hurling.

So, I appear to have talked myself into a Tipp\Waterford Munster final and a Kilkenny\Galway Leinster equivalent. As ever there will be a few shocks along the way but sure where would the fun be if it was all so predictable. Going beyond provincial final pairings is like predicting next month’s weather; the further you go the more unpredictable things become so I’ll desist for the moment.

Switching to the local scene I must admit to a certain boredom with the championship thus far. Our elaborate structures mean that we have a plethora of games early season in order to weed out a few before the real business commences some time in late summer. There have been shock results, predictable results, wide margins and tight affairs but through it all very little quality hurling. The most enjoyable game I saw so far was that Carrick derby a few weeks back. The ‘afters’ I’m told weren’t that pleasant but what we visitors witnessed in Davin Park was a rollicking good contest.

Anyway the Mid division seems to be the one presenting the clearest picture at present. One half of the draw is sorted: Brackens are in a semi-final with Drom and Holycross in the ‘quarters’. I’d suggest the other side is effectively sorted also. Last weekend Upperchurch were big winners over Moycarkey so the three qualifiers from that section are now Loughmore, Upperchurch and Boherlahan, though the final order awaits the last game.

And therein lies a familiar tale. Boherlahan were scheduled to play Loughmore last Friday evening but it was cancelled on the insistence of the football fraternity. The county footballers were holding camp last weekend and the Loughmore contingent would have been a few hours late if the game went ahead on Friday evening. Presumably to avoid conflict the Board stepped in and ‘pulled’ the game. This nonsense happens in May and remember last autumn we had a frantic rush of games played, in some cases a few days apart and under lights, in order to meet deadlines. Some things never change.

Anyway on known form Loughmore will be expected to beat Boherlahan when the pair meet in a few weeks time. If that happens then Loughmore make the semis and the quarter-final pairings will be Drom versus Boherlahan and Upperchurch versus Holycross.

Up North last weekend Nenagh and Borrisoleigh drew in what would have been seen as a highlight fixture. A more eye-catching development, however, was Lorrha’s decision to give Toomevara a walk over. Depletion was the stated reason but it’s a development that reflects poorly on the championship thereabouts. I wonder what penalty Lorrha will face and how will the outcome be factored in if score difference is needed at the end of the series. Incidentally the spat between Templederry and Roscrea over the disputed score in their game is ongoing. An appeal is due to be heard this week but it looks like Templederry will eventually be credited with the win.

Finally Tipperary beat Dublin in a high-scoring challenge at Athy on Sunday evening. I didn’t travel but reports speak well of a lively contest where the likes of Darren Gleeson, Noel McGrath, Seamus Callanan and Shane Bourke were all credited with smart displays. It sounds much better than what we got in Holycross the previous week. The team plays the county U21 side this Thursday night in what will be their final game before Cork. Team selection for the championship opener will be interesting topic but that’s matter for next week.

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