The real contenders are flexing their muscles already

Defending champions, Ballyhale Shamrocks are within one win of qualifying for the senior hurling league final from Group I (see tables).

Defending champions, Ballyhale Shamrocks are within one win of qualifying for the senior hurling league final from Group I (see tables).

However, the situation in Group 2 is much more open and complicated, and all bar Dicksboro and Graigue-Ballycallan, who are bottom of the table, could claim one of the two berths in the decider.

With three rounds played, and two to be decided on the weekends of July 14/15 and July 20/21, most observers have a fair idea about who will be the real contenders in the top division and who might be in trouble come the business end of the season around September and October.

The contenders

Beaten championship finalists of last season, Shamrocks, won’t be too far off the mark. Neither will champions, James Stephens, Carrickshock and O’Loughlin Gaels, while the next tier of contenders, it would appear, would be headed by Northern neighbours, St Martin’s (Muckalee) and Erin’s Own (Castlecomer).

Of course, a championship draw is a curious thing, and anything could happen in a do or die, once off match. But going on league results and performances to date, the clubs listed above would appear to be the hot prospects.

Shamrocks have to play Tullaroan, who went through the 2011 league season without a win, and Fenians in their remaining matches. If they can pick up two points between those two games, that should be enough to secure top spot in Group I on scoring averages, barring some massive avalanche of scores against them.

The top spot would then qualify them for the League final, which is contested by the clubs who head Groups I and 2. The runners-up in each group contest the Shield final, and the bonus for those four teams is that they are secure against relegation and they get a bye in the first round of the championship.

In Group 2, O’Loughlin’s and Carrickshock are level on points at the head off affairs, with Erin’s Own and James Stephens chasing.

The top two are due to meet in Bennettsbridge in the last round on July 21, so their next outing is crucial to their plans. If both win - O’Loughlin’s face Erin’s Own and Carrickshock play Graigue-Ballycallan - they can slam the door shut on all the other and set up a ‘winner take all’ situation in the ’Bridge.

O’Loughlin’s and Carrickshock have never won the League, and while claiming it doesn’t make or break any club’s season, it is still a prize worthy having.

There is still plenty to be decided in both groups. Tullaroan, Dicksboro, Graigue-Ballycallan and intermediate champions, Danesfort currently occupy what is classed as the relegation zone. The latter pair have yet to register a point in the league.

Acquiring three or four points to get out of trouble won’t be easy!