The last two All-Ireland club hurling champions are both in action this weekend as we will take a significant step closer to discovering who will be in Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day 2018.
With Slaughtneil already in the All-Ireland semi-final courtesy of an Ulster title, and the Galway SHC down to three teams, we will have Munster champions and Leinster finalists on Sunday evening – barring draws, of course.
Two teams that have proven that they can produce the goods at GAA HQ are Cuala of Dublin and Limerick’s three-time Munster champions, Na Piarsaigh.
The pair have been mightily impressive to date in the club championship are will be expected to make it through this weekend – but stiff challenges await them as new teams look to emerge and take centre stage.
Ballygunner have been a tour de force in the Waterford SHC in recent years and will fancy their chances of ending Na Piarsaigh’s remarkable unbeaten run in the provincial championship.
They fell short against the Limerick city men in 2015 but have had some note-worthy wins in provincial action including victories over Glen Rovers in 2015 and in recent weeks getting over Thurles Sarsfields and Sixmilebridge.
After winning a fourth Deise crown in a row this season, a Munster title would be a natural progression for Ballygunner – but with Na Piarsaigh standing in their way, it will be one hell of a battle.
The winner of the Munster Championship plays Slaughtneil of Derry for a spot in the All-Ireland final.
While the Waterford men have a real shot at getting a provincial title in the south, can anyone take the Leinster crown away from Cuala?
After dispatching of Kilkenny champions Dicksboro in the last round, Wexford side St Martin’s are next up for the men from the capital.
A relatively new name to a lot of observers, St Martin’s overcame Oulart-The Ballagh in their county final and will take huge confidence going forward.
Given Wicklow’s Rathnew defeated the mighty St Vincents just last weekend, expecting a Dublin team with All-Ireland ambitions to just breeze into the next round would be naive to say the very least, however, Cuala are heavily favoured to win this one.
That said, St Martin’s are a club on a roll with their camogie team going well also and, as we have seen with Slaughtneil, once a tight-knit club gets momentum, they can be tough to stop.
Should Cuala overcome this hurdle, a meeting with the winner of Mount Leinster Rangers (Carlow) or Kilcormac-Killoughey (Offaly) awaits.
The Dalkey side are, on paper at least, the strongest of the quartet in the Leinster Championship, however, Mount Leinster Rangers won a provincial title in 2012 with Kilcormac-Killoughey winning it 12 months later. St Martin’s defeated the 2015 champions in their county final so all the challengers to Cuala’s crown can hurl.
That said, it will be a Herculean effort to knock the Dublin side off their perch as the kings of Leinster club hurling.
The Leinster champions will play the Connacht representatives (the Galway champions) in the All-Ireland semi-final. There are three teams left in the Tribesmen’s county championship with Liam Mellows in the final against the winners of the Craughwell vs Gort replay.
With the Munster and Leinster champions in opposite All-Ireland semi-finals, are we headed towards a Cuala vs Na Piarsaigh All-Ireland final? A lot of teams will have their say over the next few weeks and months but as it stands the champions from Dublin and Limerick are best placed to be in action on Paddy’s Day.
Joel Slattery, Pundit Arena
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