it IS that time of the year again when the evenings are stretching; clubs and players are busy getting things into shape; there is hope everywhere in the air and fans are beginning to engage in conversations about what might or could be.
After what was a decent enough winter, certainly by comparion with the big freeze of the previous year, and the recent excitement of the National League, it will be down to brass tacks this weekend when the local senior and intermediate hurling leagues swing into action.
What is on the agenda? Who knows, really? Clubs up and down the county report a slow enough run into the season, but once the ball is thrown-in you can be sure there will be no holding back.
The League is the early season event, the season warmer if you like, before the championship, the main event, begins in September.
After this weekend the other rounds of the leagues will be played on May 11/12/13, 18/19/20, July 14/15 and July 20/21. The League (between the top finishers in each group) and Shield (between the runners-up in each group) finals have been pencilled in for September 23, so the season has been mapped out in detail for clubs.
The three opening rounds will be run off relatively quickly before there is a break for the county team to start preparations for what will be a very serious test in the Leinster senior championship in Portlaois on June 23 against Dublin or Laois or Carlow.
More about that in due course. Right now the concentration is on the local scene, and a hectic scene it promises to be. Former Laois boss, Niall Rigney, will again lead championship kings and beaten League finalists, James Stephens. Mr Rigney made a huge impact in his first season, and The Village can be expected to be contenders for everything again this time.
Mr Rigney is one of five managers who have been retained by clubs. The others are Michael Nolan (O’Loughlin Gaels), Sean O’Neill (St Martin’s), Martin Fogarty (Erin’s Own) while Danesfort will be guided by Joe Tierney and Gerry Doyle, who steered them to promotion from the intermediate championship last season.
Otherwise there have been wholesale changes, with Tommy Shefflin stepping into the hot seat with Ballyhale Shamrocks after the term of the Michael Fennelly (senior), James McGarry and Brendan Mason was completed. Former Kilkenny intermediate manager, Pat Hoban, has been signed up by Dunnamaggin, while Tommy Bawle and Eamon Sweeney take over at Graigue-Ballycallan and Fenians (Johnstown) respectively.
Declan Connolly has returned to Tullaroan, where he last served in 1994, when he guided the club to a championship victory. Ger Henderson and Liam Maher have switched places with Dicksboro, with the former stepping into the role of manager.
Laois boss of last season, Brendan Fennelly, will start the season with Carrickshock. He guided them to the county final in 2010 and was involved during the championship last year. This time it will be hands on for him from the off.
The clubs are under starters orders. Enjoy the action!
James Stephens v Carrickshock in Thomastown (7pm) - What an inviting and intriguing game with which to kick off the action. ’Stephens will be contenders for everything. Carrickshock could be. Therein lies the difference.
And that difference could be the makings of this game. Carrickshock will be out to down the champions to help set up their season. The Village won’t give ground. Something will have to give.
This looks like it could be the game of the round!
Graigue-Ballycallan v O’Loughlin Gaels in Tullaroan (7pm) - In all cases the judgement would have to be made on last season’s form. O’Loughlin’s would look the better bet to win.
Ballyhale Shamrocks v Danesfort in Hugginstown (2pm) - With deadly forwards, Henry Shefflin (BS) and Richie Hogan (D) sitting out the action, both sides will be missing a lot of firepower.
Danesfort could have done with a less taxing introduction to the senior grade. The step up from the intermediate division is huge, and they will get a sober reminder here. It won’t be easy. Shamrocks are a fair detail, and they will get better as the season progress. A Ballyhale win looks on.
Fenians v St Martin’s in Jenkinstown (7pm) - Now this could be a right rattler between a team trying to find itself (Fenians) and the other (Martin’s) believing it has the potential to achieve almost anything. Martin’s did well to get to the semi-finals of the championship last season, and for nearly 55 minutes of that game they were genuine contenders.
They left the season thinking they had achieved, and sure in the knowledge that they had laid the foundations for future progress. The future is now! This is the time to start delivering.
Erin’s Own v Dicksboro in Freshford (2pm) - Both could have fared worse in terms of the draw, so this might be a good opportunity to nick a win that could be crucial in the long run. There is not an awful lot between them.
Erin’s Own lost a bit of the dash last season that they had shown during the previous two campaigns. The ’Boro struggled, and their best hurling was played in the high pressure relegation ties with Clara.
The return of the elegant Cillian Buckley could be the thing to swing it for the ’Boro.
Tullaroan v Dunnamaggin in Tom Ryall Park (7pm) - There were times last season when Tullaroan looked to going places with the Walshs’ and Mahers’ driving them on. However, promising performers never amounted to much as they lost all their League matches. One win in the season kept them up.
Dunnamaggin have fair potential. They can get to about a dozen good players, and then their team tapers off a little. They have something. Their discipline has been good generally. Perhaps new boss, Pat Hoban, can find the missing piece? They beat Shamrocks early last season. They should be good enough here.