With the Provincial Championships drawing to a close, this weekend sees the start of knockout hurling. This weekend two teams’ championship campaigns will come to an end.
Next weekend will see the glamour tie of Tipperary and the losers of Kilkenny and Galway in Thurles, while All Ireland champions Clare will look to bounce back from their disappointing loss to Cork when they host Wexford. Both fixtures will be broadcast live on television.
However, this weekend also gives us some intriguing battles. Waterford host an ever improving Laois side, while Offaly will attempt to put the mauling they received from Kilkenny behind them when they visit Antrim.
Waterford put in an impressive performance in their Munster quarter final draw with Cork, a game they felt they should have won. However they could not repeat the performance in the replay when they were outclassed by a scoreline of 0-28 to 0-14. That result will give Liam “Cheddar” Plunkett’s Laois side hope as they make the journey to Walsh Park for a 7pm throw in on Saturday evening.
Laois gave Galway a big scare in their Leinster quarter final when Galway were very fortunate to escape O’Moore Park with a two point victory. Laois will feel that if they can repeat that performance they will be in with a great chance of toppling the Déise men.
Derek McGrath has made two changes to his Waterford side for the knockout clash. Darragh Fives makes his first championship start of the year at wing back in place of Dungarvan’s Jamie Nagle. In attack, Ryan Donnelly comes in for his championship debut in place of the suspended Brian O’Sullivan.
Laois have unsurprisingly named an unchanged side from the defeat to Galway as they go in search of a first ever championship win over Waterford. Their only previous meeting came in the 2006 qualifiers when Waterford ran out 2-17 to 1-13 winners in Portlaoise.
During the week, Waterford qualified for their fifth Munster minor final in six years as they attempt to defend their All Ireland minor crown while their under 21 side will have All Ireland ambitions of their own. As a result, this Waterford side is seen as a side for the future, however an early championship exit at the hands of Laois will do very little for the development of hurling in Waterford.
On Sunday in Ballycastle Offaly will attempt to bounce back from the trouncing they received in front of the Sky Sports cameras against Kilkenny when they visit Antrim. Pundits up and down the country were very critical of the performance of Brian Whelehan’s side. The Offaly hurling public will demand a huge response from their team.
Whelehan has responded by making five changes to his side. Chris McDonald, Kevin Brady and Ger Healion come in to the Offaly backline at the expense of the injured James Rigney, Barry Harding and Derek Morkan. In the forwards, David Kenny and Colin Egan replace Peter Geraghty and Kevin Connolly.
Antrim had a disappointing defeat of their own in the Leinster Championship at the hands of Wexford and Kevin Ryan has reacted by making four changes. Simon McRory replaces Ciaran Johnson in defence while Darren Hamill replaces Conor Johnson in attack. Tomas McCann and Jackson McGreevey form a new midfield partnership.
Offaly’s last victory in the qualifiers came in 2010 when they beat Limerick while Antrim have won just five out of sixteen games in the back-door system. Both sides are coming off disappointing performances and another poor performance from either side will spell the end of their involvement in this year’s championship.
Peadar Breathnach, Pundit Arena.