PREVIEW: We look ahead to Offaly's pre-season semi-finals
Both of Offaly's senior inter-county teams are involved in the latter stages of their respective pre-season tournaments for the first time in many years this weekend after promising starts under new managers Stephen Wallace and Kevin Martin.
First up will be the hurlers who tackle Kilkenny at Bord na Mona O’Connor Park in Tullamore on Saturday, January 13 in the Walsh Cup. Throw in is at 2pm.
The hurlers put back to back wins against neighbours Westmeath in a two-team group as Kevin Martin got his managerial reign off to a flying start.
Westmeath have been resurgent in recent years and our now consistently a close challenger to Offaly. They provided stern opposition in both the Walsh Cup games, with Offaly emerging as the 2-15 to -16 winners in the first encounter, thanks in no small part to the 2-2 haul of emerging star Colm Gath.
They were forced to re-group at half-time in the second clash, eventually running out 1-18 to 0-18 winners. Kevin Martin will be happy enough with the slow-build nature of his managerial regime, and a winning habit can do no harm to the upcoming league campaign.
However, even with an experimental team, Kilkenny will pose a far more potent threat to that winning run than Westmeath. They have two big wins under their belt in the Walsh Cup to date this year.
They saw off Kildare, a team that probably should have beaten Offaly in this competition last year, by 19 points last week, having already had 28 points in hand over Laois.
Kevin Martin is expected to field a strong team and may catch a youthful Kilkenny team unawares, but nevertheless, the strength in depth in their ranks may prove a bridge too far at this early stage of Kevin's tenure.
Verdict: Kilkenny to win by 10 points
Meanwhile on Sunday, Stephen Wallace leads his young side into a semi final of the O'Byrne Cup against Westmeath, the team that knocked them out of the Leinster Championship last Summer.
This game throws in at 2pm on TEG Cusack Park, Mullingar, on Sunday and the big news from the camp is the absence of sharpshooter Cian Johnson from the starting 15.
The 18-year-old Ferbane clubman scored 1-3 and 0-6 against Wexford and Dublin respectively in the team's opening O'Byrne Cup games, earning him well deserved plaudits from his manager, supporters and those looking in from outside the county.
However, Stephen Wallace has said this week that "we have to mind Cian Johnson," pointing to the fact that he is still in a school uniform every day of the week.
Perhaps that points to why he has been benched for this game, a fixture that is notoriously physical between two bitter local rivals. No doubt, we will see him emerge at some point in the game, but the teenage sensation may yet be kept under wraps by his manager as the Kerry man embarks on his 'three-year plan' with Offaly.
As a team, playing Wallace's 'Kerry Way' has seemed to spark a revival in attitude and fortunes for the footballers. They played a good brand of football against both Wexford and Dublin, who they were unlucky not to nab the win against at Parnell Park.
A 16-point win over Wexford, a county also under development with a new manager, and a draw against an experimental Dublin side, were good confidence builders, but as Wallace said himself after the Dublin game, "it is only the O'Byrne Cup at the end of the day."
Nevertheless, the tournament, and our prolonged involvement in it to the latter stages, have provided the new manager with a welcome look at a lot of talent from around the county, and indeed, 10 different clubs are represented in the starting 15 for Sunday's semi-final.
Westmeath also have two wins to their name this year, both against Laois in a two-team group, the second of which was a comfortable 3-16 to 1-13 win in Stradbally.
Westmeath have young talent of their own, shown sharply by Callum McCormack's 3-3 haul in that second game. Colin Kelly is also a man looking to get his managerial spell with Westmeath off to a winning start, and this game could prove to be a feast with both teams playing open, expansive football.
Verdict: Offaly to edge a high-scoring game by the minimum
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