This Thursday night sees the start of the 2018 Fitzgibbon Cup as the eagerly anticipated opening game sees Leeside rivals Cork IT and UCC face off in group C.
With UCD also in this group, both Cork colleges will be eager to get off to a good start in this cut-throat competition.
With 13 third-level institutions battling it out to be crowned champions in Mallow on February 24, one of the favourite competitions in the GAA calendar is set for another exciting campaign full of inter-county talent.
Here are some of the best players who will be involved over the next six weeks or so in this competition.
Honourable mentions to Limerick u-21 All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Eoghan McNamara (Trinity College), Westmeath’s Liam Varley (Garda College) and Cork IT pair Darragh Fanning (Limerick) and Michael Cahalane (Cork).
In no particular order, here are ten top stars to keep an eye out for as the best hurlers in the country battle it out to win this prestigious championship.
Patrick Curran (DCU)
Curran scored 1-26 in three group games last year as DCU unexpectedly reached the quarter-final.
Former Tipperary hurler, and current senior footballer with the Premier, Stephen O’Brien will be another key player for the men from the capital.
Liam Blanchfield (DIT)
Kilkenny’s Liam Blanchfield is certainly one who will be a big part of the next generation of hurlers in the Marble City. While Kilkenny hurlers typically expect to win all games they compete in, DIT will have it all to do as they are drawn alongside the University of Limerick and Waterford IT.
Patrick Maher and Westmeath’s Niall O’Brien will also have to be on form if DIT are to reach the knockout stages.
Colin Dunford (IT Carlow)
The exciting prospect is the stand-out name on the IT Carlow panel. Dunford made his Deise debut back in 2014 as a 19-year-old but is still a young player who will only get better with game time at a high level.
Enda Rowland of Laois and Martin Kavanagh, a goalscorer in last year’s Christy Ring Cup final for Carlow are also on this panel.
Diarmaid Byrnes (LIT)
Diarmaid Byrnes was one of the most impressive players for John Kiely’s Limerick in an otherwise disappointing 2017.
Captain of the u-21 All-Ireland champions in 2015, there are high hopes for Byrnes, who has been touted by many on Shannonside to be a future captain for the Treaty at senior level.
Kieran Bennett and David Reidy (Clare) will also have a big impact for Davy Fitzgerald’s troops who also have Peter Duggan and Peter Casey in their squad.
Aaron Gillane (Mary I)
The most impressive player in last year’s u-21 championship, Gillane, like his clubmate Byrnes, has the potential to be an inter-county star for a long time to come.
Another Patrickswell man Cian Lynch is also key to the defending champions.
Conor Whelan (NUI, Galway)
After accumulating an impressive medal haul in 2017, Conor Whelan is sure to be looking to keep that winning feeling going in 2018. The All-Star is certainly one of the best players in the competition and with NUIG grouped with Mary I, Trinity and IT Carlow, expect to see Whelan and co in the latter stages of the competition.
Padraic and Cathal Mannion will also be crucial for the lone Connacht side in the Fitzgibbon Cup.
Shane Kingston (UCC)
There will be a bit of pressure of Cork in 2018 to prove that last year’s success was not a fluke. Shane Kingston played an important role in that campaign and will be looking to back it up.
Before the task of launching a Munster title defence, Kingston will be looking to get UCC off to a flyer in the Fitzgibbon Cup opener this Thursday night.
Mark Coleman is also on the UCC squad as is Conor Gleeson, Tom Devine and John Power.
Tadgh de Burca (UCD)
A huge part of Waterford’s run to the All-Ireland final in 2017 was the performances of Tadgh de Burca. If he can replicate those efforts in the colours of UCD, consider the men from the capital a dark horse in this series.
Seamus Flanagan who was burst onto the inter-county scene with Limerick in the Munster Senior Hurling League will be looking to keep up his goal-scoring form in UCD’s opening round against UCC on January 24. DJ Foran was a key player for DCU last season and 2018 should be no different for the Portlaw man.
Jason Forde (UL)
The Silvermines forward will be a go-to man for the Castletroy-based college as they look to win back the title they last won in 2015.
Tony Kelly is another stand-out name on the Limerick side’s 35-man panel which also includes Limerick senior panellists Barry Nash, Kyle Hayes, Michael Casey, Sean Finn and Ronan Lynch. Add in Clare’s Conor Cleary and it is hard to argue against UL being one of the favourites for the championship.
Mark Fanning (WIT)
Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning will be a key man for WIT and will need to be on his game if they are to progress to the last eight.
The WIT panel full of players who have represented the Deise at under-age level as well as Conal Flood who has impressed at under-age level for Wexford in recent seasons.