With the new National Hurling League season beginning this weekend, here are Pundit Arena’s five teams to watch out for ahead of the 2017 campaign.
All-Ireland champions Tipperary didn’t play in the Munster Senior Hurling League so a trip to Croke Park to face the Dubs will be their first outing of the New Year.
Not playing the pre-season competition may mean that the Premier county go experimental in the league, but after finding players like Michael Breen and Dan McCormack last year, it will be interesting to see if Tipp can add to their already impressive panel of players. After Dublin, they are away to Waterford in round two.
Defending champions Clare visit Pairc Ui Rinn in round one before hosting Leinster champions Kilkenny in their first home game of the campaign. By having such a young panel, Clare must do a lot of juggling between players playing with their colleges, as well as the county side.
Ballyea’s win last weekend means that they will be without, among others, Tony Kelly for the first part of the campaign. After seeing Limerick struggle with Na Piarsaigh players last year, it will be interesting to see who can step up for Clare.
A huge trip to Wexford Park before their home opener against Kerry opens up 2017 for John Kiely’s Limerick side who begin yet another campaign in Division 1B. While the new boss has stressed that promotion is not the number one goal, Limerick’s young players have to test themselves against the best to see if they are able for the step up to senior inter-county hurling.
With Wexford improving and Galway also in the group, promotion is possible for Limerick, but it will be the most competitive Division 1B since the league was restructured.
The aforementioned Limerick clash is first up for Davy Fitzgerald before travelling to Salthill for another crucial tie, this time with Galway as the opponents. Two losses would spell disaster, two wins and promotion will be in their hands.
At least one win from the opening two will give the Slaneysiders a bit of momentum leading into a championship where, if they beat a qualifier (which they should), they will face Kilkenny in a Leinster semi-final.
Despite having Liam McCarthy Cup status, the Royals will play in Division 2B. What’s worse for the Christy Ring Cup champions is that 2B doesn’t join 2A for the knockout stages as the top divisions do, so quality games will be at a premium. Clashes with Derry, Down, Mayo, Roscommon and Wicklow are hardly preparation for the Leinster Championship but it will have to do for Meath.
It will, however, be interesting to see how they progress throughout the spring as they will look to hit some big scores against weaker opposition – including a Derry side who play in the third tier Nicky Rackard Cup.
Joel Slattery, Pundit Arena