Neil McManus relishing Ulster hurling chance to shine
Ulster hurling will be thrust firmly into the shop window over the course of the weekend.
Antrim hope to take another step along the road to real credibility in the Leinster championship when they meet Carlow while Derry, Down and Armagh are on duty in the Christy Ring Cup.
And it's Antrim skipper Neil McManus who best encapsulates the task facing the Ulster sides when he says: "We have a number of teams from the province taking part in major competitions and this will show the current strength of the sport here. You can be sure that the rest of the country will be watching to see how things go."
McManus's observation is endorsed by Armagh manager John Lennon who believes that Ulster teams must grasp the nettle if they hope to make an impact within the sport.
"We ourselves are playing Mayo today and it's these cup games at this time of the year that really let you know where you are at. All the preliminary sparring is over now and we are getting to the business end of the season," insists Lennon.
Antrim boss Kevin Ryan is determined that his side should made further advances in Leinster and county PRO Brendan Mulgrew points to an attractive carrot that is currently being dangled in front of the side.
"If we can get a win against Carlow tomorrow, we would then have to play London and Laois. Wins in those games would assure us of a semi-final at home against Wexford and when we played them in the league at Ballycastle just recently we were very unfortunate to lose by just a single point," points out Mulgrew,
"Just think about it. A Leinster semi-final in somewhere like Ballycastle in high summer. There's nothing better calculated to bring the fans out and give hurling here a massive shot in the arm. It's a great incentive for the players but Carlow is only the game in our sights just at this particular point in time."
Ryan, happy that his side got past Westmeath, suggests that Carlow, who he himself formerly managed, will be keen to make up for some reverses at home.
"We know they will come at us strongly and we have to be ready for this," says Ryan.
Tomorrow's Allianz Hurling League final between Tipperary and Kilkenny at Semple Stadium, Thurles (3.30pm) promises to be a titanic contest between two teams desperately anxious to flash out a message in relation to their All Ireland title credentials.
Killkenny beat Dublin in their semi-final while Tipperary overcame Clare thus setting the scene for tomorrow's shoot-out.
Kilkenny boss Brian Cody will look to his old hands such as Henry Shefflin, J J Delaney, John Power and Colin Fennelly to inspire his side while Tipperary manager Eamon O'Shea can lean on the towering skills of Seamus Callinan, Shane McGrath, Brendan Maher and Patrick Maher.
Armagh, meanwhile, will be keen to avenge their league defeat to Mayo when the sides renew their rivalry at Castlebar while Down boss Gerard Monan is challenging his side to repeat their form of last year which took them to the Christy Ring Cup when they cross swords with Meath at Trim.
Monan's bold gamble in giving opportunities to 'non-Ards' players is paying dividends with Steven Dinneen, Paul Sheehan and Caolan Bailie among those who are making an impact in attack.
Derry manager Ger Rogan is looking to skipper Ruari Convery to inspire his team against Kerry in Tralee.
Brian Og McGilligan, whose father Brian snr was Anthony Tohill's midfield partner when Derry won the All Ireland football final in 1993 and who has since managed the Derry hurling side, will be in action for the county.
Former Antrim ace Rogan believes that his team's blend of tenacity and skill will stand them in good stead.
"I think that Ulster hurling is continuing to improve but much work needs to be done. Obviously the top teams in the country are constantly raising the bar," states Rogan.
Oisin McCloskey, Liam Hinphey, Michael Warnock, John O'Dwyer and Alan Grant are other key players in a Derry side that is laden with promise.
Tyrone will face Sligo in the Nicky Rackard Cup while Fermanagh have the daunting task of trying to stifle Warwickshire in Birmingham where they could find the going decidedly tough.