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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 11 December, 2018

6 of the best! The early senior football and hurling championship fixtures we can't wait for

Here are the big fixtures we’ll be keeping a close eye on.

IT’S THAT TIME again. The race for provincial and All-Ireland honours is underway and there are a number of tasty early-season ties that we’re eagerly anticipating.

The six games cover the Munster hurling, Leinster hurling, Ulster football, Leinster football and Connacht football championships over the next few weeks.

We’ll have to split our time between three games on 21 May, while there’s a choice between Leinster hurling and Ulster football a week later.

On 4 June, the stand-out fixture for us is the Munster SHC semi-final between Clare and Limerick, with a double bonus on offer for the winners.

The Banner County or the Shannonsiders will progress to a provincial decider with Tipperary, Cork or Waterford, and there’s also guaranteed progress to an All-Ireland quarter-final.

Here, we run the rule over six early season crackers across both codes…

1. Tipperary v Cork – Munster SHC quarter-final (21 May)

Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

The first big hurling clash of the summer is fixed for Semple Stadium, and features ancient rivals Tipperary and Cork.

They also met at the provincial quarter-final stage last year, as Tipp’s comfortable 0-22 to 0-13 win set them on the path to Munster and All-Ireland honours.

Come the end of the season, Tipp had become the first Munster champions since Cork in 2005 to add an All-Ireland title to their Southern success.

The counties have met already this year, when Cork inflicted a first competitive defeat on Tipp since they lost the 2016 Allianz League quarter-final against Clare.

But whether Cork have improved enough to trouble Tipp in the championship is another question entirely. All will be revealed at the Field of Legends.

2. Mayo v Sligo – Connacht SFC quarter-final (21 May)

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Sligo negotiated a tricky assignment against New York to book a Connacht quarter-final clash with Mayo.

New York’s odds tumbled when the strength of their squad was revealed but Sligo got the job done at Gaelic Park. 

Now they face a big step up in class against a Mayo side determined to wrestle the Connacht title from Galway’s grasp.

Sligo won’t need reminding of their last provincial tussle with Mayo two years ago, as they suffered a 2-11 to 6-25 final pummelling. 

The gap isn’t likely to be as big as 26 points again but Mayo will still start as favourites to book a semi-final clash with Connacht champions Galway.

3. Laois v Longford – Leinster SFC preliminary round (21 May)

Source: Cathal Noonan

Laois and Longford already have history this year, with the O’Moore men running out 1-13 to 0-13 winners in Division 3 of the Allianz League.

Ultimately, however, Longford managed to avoid relegation but Peter Creedon’s Laois dropped down to Division 4.

Creedon will hope to revive confidence levels ahead of what is a pivotal championship opener for both counties.

A Leinster quarter-final with Kildare is the prize for the winners but the losers could face a short summer through the qualifiers.

There’s so much riding on this game as Creedon pits his touchline wits against Longford boss Denis Connerton.

But it’s highly unlikely that either of these teams will reach a Leinster decider, as Kildare and then possibly Meath stand in their way.

4. Dublin v Galway – Leinster SHC quarter-final (28 May)

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Can Galway back up their storming end to the Allianz Hurling League campaign with a summer run?

That’s one of the big questions exercising the minds of hurling fans as thoughts turn to the championship.

Galway were brilliant in their League final victory over Tipperary, overpowering the All-Ireland champions with a clinical mix of strength, pace and scoring power.

But now the Tribesmen need to deliver in championship fare, and take five possible steps to a first Liam MacCarthy Cup win since way back in 1988.

For Dublin, this is a chance to banish memories of their relegation from Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League.

But on all known form, and if Galway turn up, it be a routine victory for the Westerners at O’Connor Park in Tullamore.

5. Derry v Tyrone – Ulster SFC quarter-final (28 May)

Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

The rivalry between Derry and Tyrone stretches back many years but in more recent times, it’s the Red Hands who have had the upper hand.

They met five times last year, with Tyrone winning on each occasion.

A League victory helped Tyrone gain promotion back to Division 1 of the Allianz League and they backed that up with an Ulster quarter-final success. 

This year, Tyrone enjoyed a blistering top-flight start before their campaign petered out.

They finished third from bottom of Division 1, while Derry suffered relegation from Division 2.

Derry have home advantage at Celtic Park but Tyrone will start as raging hot favourites. The counties met in the McKenna Cup final earlier this year, with Tyrone running out nine-point winners. 

6. Clare v Limerick – Munster SHC semi-final (4 June)

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

New management teams come face to face as Clare and Limerick meet for a third successive championship season.

Clare won a Thurles qualifier last year but in 2015, Limerick edged a Munster quarter-final by just a point.

They also met in a 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, Clare winning that en route to September glory, but Limerick won a 2012 qualifier.

With that recent history in mind, another tight encounter potentially lies in store as Limerick boss John Kiely comes up against Clare pair Donal Moloney and Gerry O’Connor.

Both counties have been preparing quietly behind the scenes for this one, with very little talk from the Banner County and Shannonside.

But with so much on the line in Thurles on 4 June, expect these teams to serve up a humdinger. Victory will secure a Munster final spot, and also a safe passage to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

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