And so on the day that Tipperary and Galway clash in the Allianz Hurling League takes place, the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup also gets underway.
The hurlers of Laois, Westmeath, Kerry and Meath aren’t expected to be around come September but their championship gets underway this afternoon. Expectations are different to the big guns and the immediate aim now is fairly simple: get out of the Round Robin and into a Leinster championship quarter-final.
So what do Laois need to do to set up a game against one of the big guns?
They need to finish in the top two of this four-team group. Today’s clash against Westmeath gets underway at 3pm in O’Moore Park while Meath and Kerry clash at the same time in Navan.
It’s Laois’s only home game in this stage of the championship. Next Sunday they make the trip to Pairc Tailteann in Navan to play Meath and two weeks later, on Sunday, May 14, they travel to Austin Stack Park in Tralee to meet Kerry.
The top two teams will go through to a Leinster quarter-final with Wexford and Offaly awaiting the qualifiers.
What’s Westmeath form like?
They had a disappointing league campaign in Division 2A, a section they won in 2016. Losses to Kildare and Carlow in the opening rounds ended their promotions hopes early on but they improved to win their final three games – against Armagh, London and away to eventual Division 2A winners Antrim.
Allied to their form in the latter stages of the league, they can also call on a good experience in last year’s championship, where they won all three of their Round Robin games.
After hammering an Offaly side then under the management of current Laois boss Eamonn Kelly, they then beat Kerry and Carlow to top the group. Westmeath did lose heavily to Galway in the Leinster championship and later to Limerick in the All Ireland qualifiers but their form in Leinster was good.
What else should we know about them?
Well they’re managed by Michael Ryan from Waterford who is now in his third year and who has previously managed his native county.
Their U-21 team famously beat Kilkenny in last year’s championship but only two of that side are named to start today – defender Conor Shaw and forwards Niall Mitchell and Killian Doyle. Midfielder Cormac Boyle has also featured with the Westmeath football team but is now solely with the hurlers.
Interestingly – in the teams named below – Westmeath haven’t included Niall O’Brien or Brendan Murtagh, two of their more higher-profile players.
What type of record do Laois have against Westmeath?
Reasonable enough. Despite putting in a very poor showing in last year’s league, Laois got the better of Westmeath in a relegation playoff in Tullamore – winning on a scoreline of 0-23 to 0-16.
While the sides didn’t meet in last year’s championship Laois have won the two most recent clashes in the Leinster Round Robin – by 1-20 to 1-17 in 2015 and 1-15 to 1-9 in 2014.
There are a number of changes in personnel on both sides from when they met in the 2016 relegation playoff, just over a year ago.
Laois: E Rowland (0-1, free); D Palmer, D Maher, C Healy; L Bergin, M Whelan, R Mullaney; P Purcell, C Stapleton; C Dwyer (0-6), N Foyle (0-1), W Dunphy (0-2); PJ Scully (0-10, 0-06f, 0-01’65), S Maher, J Lennon (0-1).
Subs: Z Keenan (0-1) for Maher (h-t), M Kavanagh (0-1) for Dunphy (58), J Phelan for Palmer (67), E Fennelly for Foyle (69), B Reddin for Lennon (73).
Westmeath: P Maloney; S Power, T Doyle, T Gallagher; A Craig, A Clarke (c), A McGrath; C Boyle (0-1), G Greville; A Devine, N O’Brien (0-7), L Varley (0-1); N Dowdall (0-1), B Murtagh (0-3, frees), E Price (0-3).
Subs: K Duncan for Doyle (32-33 mins blood), R Greville for Dowdall (h-t), D McNicholas for Varley (49), C Doyle for Boyle (58), K Duncan for Power (67),
What are the teams for today?
Laois show four changes from the side that got the better of Kerry in the epic relegation playoff. Injury rules out Ryan Mullaney and John Lennon while Neil Foyle is suspended and Liam O’Connell loses out. The likes of Matthew Whelan, Conor Phelan and Paudge Lawlor haven’t featured since the early stages of the league due to injury but Stephen Maher should be back to his best after being out with injury also for most of the league.
Laois: Enda Rowland; Cahir Healy, Leigh Bergin, Dwane Palmer; Ciaran Collier, Cha Dwyer, Lee Cleere; Paddy Purcell, Ross King; Cian Taylor, Aidan Corby, Ben Conroy; Willie Dunphy, Stephen Maher, Patrick Whelan.
Westmeath: Paddy Moloney; Conor Shaw, Tommy Doyle, Tommy Gallagher; Gary Greville, Paul Greville, Joey Boyle; Aonghus Clarke, Cormac Boyle; Alan Devine, Derek McNicholas, Niall Mitchell; Shane McGovern, Robbie Greville, Killian Doyle.
What are the odds?
Laois are favourites and are priced at 1/2, Westmeath are 15/8 and the draw is 9/1. Laois on the -2 handicap are 10/11.
What time is the game at and where can I keep track of it?
It throws in at 3pm in O’Moore Park and there will be live commentary on Midlands 103, updates across the national radio stations and full live blogging of the action, as it happens, on LaoisToday.ie.