Mickey Harte and Peter McGrath lead Ulster rivals into Dr McKenna Cup battle
When it was confirmed that five Ulster teams would be lining up in Division Two of the Allianz League which gets under way at the end of this month, the competition was immediately branded by several managers as a mini-Ulster Championship.
Now that four of those teams have reached the semi-finals of the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup on Sunday, the pre-league intensity is about to be ratcheted up considerably.
With Tyrone due to cross swords with Fermanagh and Derry set to lock horns with Cavan - Armagh is the Ulster side that misses out - the penultimate stages of the January competition have suddenly morphed into a barometer for the league.
And already battle lines are being firmly drawn, the traditional amble into the new season having been dispensed with in favour of what will be a full-frontal assault on the first trophy on offer in the 2016 itinerary.
Tyrone boss Mickey Harte reiterated his side's hunger to make it five McKenna Cup triumphs on the trot, while at the same time keeping his sights set on what he describes as "a hugely competitive league" which will hold massive interest for Ulster followers.
"Up until now in the McKenna Cup managers have been looking at new players and tweaking their teams, but now that we have got to the semi-final stage the ante will be upped," he said.
"Like all managers, I have been looking for a balance between the more experienced players and the new players in my side, but with other players due back it can be taken that teams will become stronger."
"There is definitely a hugely competitive league ahead that will have considerable Ulster interest and obviously all five sides in Division Two will be targeting a place in Division One."
Padraig Hampsey, Harry Og Conlan, Patrick Quinn, Lee Brennan and Hugh Patrick McGeary are among players who have made the most of the chance they were afforded by Harte to impress to date this month, but they face an even stiffer test now to remain in the side as other players such as Colm Cavanagh, Ronan McNamee and Tiernan McCann are expected to return to the colours for the league.
Fermanagh manager Peter McGrath, pleased that his side have remained unbeaten so far in the McKenna Cup and clearly relishing Sunday's joust with Tyrone, leaves no one in any doubt as to how he views his team's status following their promotion to Division Two and surge into the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-finals.
"What we achieved last year has helped to give this Fermanagh side an air of confidence - not over-confidence, of course - that on any given day against any team we can give of our best. I think we're capable of giving any team as much as they want. I believe this is coming through very strongly now," said McGrath.
And his upbeat assessment is enthusiastically endorsed by marksman supreme Sean Quigley who has resumed where he left off last season by busily stockpiling points - business as usual, in other words.
"Our hope is that we can build on what we have achieved in the cup to date but Tyrone will be a tough test for us," he said.
"However, we knew that tougher matches would be in store and this will certainly be the best preparation possible for the league. We beat a Division One side in Down last Sunday but we won't be reading too much into anything. We will take things as they come."
Meanwhile, the Tyrone county board will now take stock of the situation after the unexpected resignation of county hurling team boss Dominic Kearns.
It is understood that he has left his post because of what he himself alludes to as "internal issues" having only been appointed in the very recent past.
Kearns had stepped into the breach when the popular Mattie Lennon severed his connection with the side last year having overseen considerable progress.
It had been hoped that Derrynoose native Lennon would have remained in his post and his exit triggered considerable disappointment.
The county board hopes to move quickly to appoint a successor to Kearns as there is a desire to see the progress made last year continued this term.
Tyrone won the Nicky Rackard Cup in 2014 and the team's progress helped to ignite fresh interest in hurling within what is regarded as a football-mad county.