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5 burning questions to be answered on a crunch National Hurling League weekend

There are still some major issues to be decided as a pivotal weekend approaches

WE’RE DOWN TO the final round of group fixtures in the Allianz Hurling League and there are still some key issues to be sorted out.

Who’ll join Kilkenny in the Division 1A relegation playoff and who’ll make it through to the last eight with Tipperary, Cork and Galway? And who will win the massive promotion shootout in Division 1B?

Here, we look ahead to a pivotal weekend and ask the five burning questions:

1. Can Clare avoid the relegation playoff?

The Banner County need to beat Kilkenny at Nowlan Park and hope that Dublin slip up against Galway to stay out of the bottom two. It’s been a difficult week for Davy Fitzgerald and Clare following last weekend’s revelations from Davy O’Halloran after he and Nicky O’Connell left the Banner County squad. But Fitzgerald and Clare have closed ranks this week, putting forward a united front as they prepare for the a crunch clash with Brian Cody’s men. 

For Kilkenny, this weekend is all about salvaging some pride and steeling themselves for the relegation playoff that’s to come. Clare’s need is greater but if Kilkenny win, or draw, the counties will be facing each other again to preserve top flight status. This is a difficult one to predict as Cody looks set to hand his Ballyhale Shamrocks contingent some breathing space following their All-Ireland club final victory. Brendan Bugler’s suspension will hit Clare hard and they’ll need other leaders to stand up in the quest for what could be a precious victory.

Brendan Bugler is sent off by Cathal McAllister Brendan Bugler's red card against Dublin has earned him a two-match ban Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

2. Who will top Division 1A?

Clashes between Cork and Tipperary are usually entertaining and high-scoring affairs. The sides last met in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, which Tipp won comfortably at Croke Park, and on home soil, Cork will be anxious to gain some measure of revenge for that damaging defeat.

It’s also the first League meeting between the neighbours since the 2014 quarter-final clash in Thurles, which Tipp also won. The carrot for Sunday’s opponents is top spot in the final Division 1A standings, and the perceived ‘easier’ League quarter-final against the fourth-placed team from Division 1B. Cian McCarthy has departed the Cork squad ahead of the weekend but has left with manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s blessing. Tipp are on a serious run of form, having beaten Galway, Clare and Kilkenny impressively in their last three outings.

Eamon O'Shea Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea wants to secure top spot in Division 1A Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

3. Who will be promoted from Division 1B?

South-East rivals Wexford and Waterford will draw a bumper crowd to Innovate Wexford Park on Sunday for a massive promotion duel. The stakes couldn’t be higher, with a place in Division 1A next season on offer. Waterford need to avoid defeat to make an immediate return to the top flight but Wexford need to win to edge out their opponents.

Limerick were in pole position to make the jump before they were shocked by Offaly at the Gaelic Grounds last Saturday. That result opened the door for Wexford and Waterford, and they didn’t slip by securing massive victories against Laois and Antrim respectively. The scene is now set for what could be the tie of the weekend. In terms of the sheer significance surrounding the fixture, it’s difficult to look past this one if you’re a neutral wondering where to head for on Sunday.

Liam Dunne Victory for Liam Dunne's Wexford on Sunday would see the Slaneysiders promoted to the top flight Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

4. Where to now for Limerick?

Last Saturday’s slip-up at home to Offaly has condemned Limerick to a sixth season outside of hurling’s top-flight. This was a scenario few would have predicted following that thrilling multi-goal victory over Wexford recently. But with their destiny very much in their own hands, the Shannonsiders blew it again. Last year, a draw with Offaly at a critical stage put the skids under Limerick’s promotion charge and the Faithful County once again proved to be their bogey side.

How Limerick react now will be interesting. Hurling outside of the top division over the past two seasons doesn’t seem to have done them much harm. After all, they were Munster champions in 2013 and reached last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, where they went desperately close to beating eventual winners Kilkenny. But gaining promotion was seen as the next step along the road for TJ Ryan and his talented bunch. They’ll start the recovery against Laois in Kilmallock on Sunday.

TJ Ryan TJ Ryan's Limerick need to recover fast after failing to gain promotion yet again Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

5. Will Dublin squeeze into the last eight?

Ger Cunningham’s Dublin got off to a flier in Division 1A, winning their opening two fixtures against last year’s League and All-Ireland finalists Tipperary and Kilkenny. But the Sky Blues have found the going tough since, suffering a heavy defeat to Cork at Croke Park before going down to 14-man Clare in Ennis last weekend.

Tipped for a relegation playoff at the start of the season, Dublin could yet end up there. If they lose to Galway and Clare beat Kilkenny, Cunningham’s men will have to scrap it out with Kilkenny for top-flight survival. But Dublin know that they just need to avoid defeat against Galway to make it into the top four in Division 1A – and the last eight of the League series. Dublin could badly to with steering clear of trouble to rebuild confidence levels. Last year, they beat Waterford in a relegation playoff, having narrowly failed to make the quarter-finals. A similar fate could yet await them but they have their destiny in their own hands.

Ger Cunningham Ger Cunningham's Dublin could yet squeeze into the League quarter-finals Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

34 intercounty GAA jerseys proudly on display at Dublin airport

Explainer: What’s at stake for teams in the final round of the Allianz Hurling League?

About the author:

Jackie Cahill

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