For the majority of clubs it has been a long wait since they struck a sliothar in a Kilkenny championship game. That was last September, but now the focus is on the prospects for the year ahead.
Some hold the view that the league/championship structure which operates in Kilkenny at senior and intermediate levels affords some sides to take a relaxed attitude in the early stages as they can usually step up the momentum for the championship.
The reality, though, for the majority of teams is that league form inevitably follows through to the championship. Very few clubs, even in Kilkenny, can afford a casual attitude at any stage so one can expect a big effort from the first throw-in this coming weekend.
The spotlight on the opening weekend of the league series focuses on the senior grade and most especially the form of the reigning county champions, James Stephens. The Village were worthy winners in 2011 and are well capable of retaining the title.
The reigning champions face a tricky opener on Sunday against Carrickshock. The Southerners are capable of beating anyone, but have come up short on too many occasions. A new season brings new hope, especially for sides like Carrickshock, and The Village will need to be on top of their game to take the points.
Danesfort surely drew the short straw when paired with Ballyhale Shamrocks in their first senior outlining. Drawing the multi-decorated champions was bad enough, but now they must face their star-studded opponents without Richie Hogan.
The Shamrocks will be missing Henry Shefflin, but it is most unfortunate that last year’s intermediate champions have to field without their ace forward. The odds look stacked against the senior debutants.
O’Loughlin Gaels remain a strong force and will expect to be still in contention by early October. Opponents Graigue-Ballycallan are always determined and committed, but will find it difficult to take the points against their city opponents.
Erin’s Own under-achieved last year. It is time that a side with many talented hurlers made a serious assault on the senior championship. Opponents Dicksboro had a disappointing league last year. The Castlecomer men should edge this tie.
The Fenians and St Martin’s is probably the most unpredictable tie. The Johnstown men beat a hugely disappointing Erin’s Own in last year’s championship and then practically gave up without any effort against their weekend opponents in the quarter-final.
I don’t think St Martin’s will find Johnstown as accommodating this time, but they should still take the two points.
Tullaroan’s best display last year came in the relegation final against Clara. The fright of almost falling through the relegation trap door should spur on the players against Dunamaggin.
The Southerners are difficult opponents as the best club sides in Kilkenny will testify and it will take a super performance from Tullaroan to take the points.
The intermediate league also starts this weekend and has thrown up some interesting games. Kilkenny, Leinster and All-Ireland junior club champions, St Patrick’s (Ballyragget) are back in the intermediate grade. Understandably the side took a few weeks off after their All-Ireland success in February, but they are now back training a couple of weeks.
It is will be a major surprise if they don’t manage to make a successful start against Tullogher-Rosbercon, although they would not want to take the Southerners for granted.
Group 1 in the intermediate league this year is all about local derbies. They don’t come any more local than the Emeralds against St Lachtain’s (Freshford). Freshford had a five point success over their neighbours in the first round of last year’s championship and should also have a couple of points to spare on Saturday.
With a recent under-21 county title success Mooncoin should now be seen as real championship contenders. They play John Lockes and should get off to a winning start.
Clara will be determined to make a quick return to the senior grade. They face a side with serious ambitions to step up to the higher grade also. The Rower-Inistioge disappointed in last year’s intermediate final. A win over Clara would be the perfect start in 2012.
This game has all the makings of a draw.
There is little to choose between neighbours Mullinavat and Glenmore. The ’Vat have been consistent performers for years, but would have been disappointed to lose to the Rower last year in the quarter-finals.
Glenmore are a young side and will have learned from their narrow two-point loss to eventual county champions, Danesfort, last year. They should make a successful start against their neighbours on Sunday.
The final intermediate tie sees Young Irelands play Conahy Shamrocks. The Gowran men got the better of Conahy last year in the league by two points and by three points in the 2010 championship.
D.J. Carey is taking his first foray into team management with Gowran. He has received an excellent response from the players. Conahy had a disappointing league last year and they will work hard to ensure their opponents do not notch a hat-trick of wins in a three-year period.
If this is a big weekend for the players, it is also an important one for all the referees who will officiate at games. Refereeing is very much in the spotlight at the moment and one must hope that the focus will be on the players and not any referee.