Hurling returns: Antrim’s next step after Clare upset, Cork click against Waterford, Dublin forgetting how to win?

Following the return of intercounty action on the first weekend of the 2021 National Hurling League, we review the main talking points.

Can Antrim kick on?

The story of the weekend was undoubtedly Antrim’s shock win over Clare at Corrigan Park.

The Saffrons continue to rise under Darren Gleeson, and they remain undefeated in both league and championship since the former Tipperary goalkeeper took charge. While that unbeaten run will likely end next Sunday when they travel to Nowlan Park to take on Kilkenny, there is no denying they are moving in the right direction.

There were several eye-catching aspects in how they outlasted the Banner. The work-rate and fitness levels were key as they outfought their visitors. Meanwhile, it is clear there is no longer a reliance on Neil McManus. Ciaran Clarke, Keelan Molloy and Conal Cunning all provided meaningful contributions on the scoreboard.

Gleeson and Co will be looking for a second victory in the coming weeks to allay any relegation fears, and will quietly fancy their chances of causing another upset in the Leinster Championship quarter-final against Dublin.

Goal-hungry Cork click against Waterford

Kieran Kingston raised some eyebrows with his winter clear-out in the Cork panel. Conor Lehane, Aidan Walsh and Christopher Joyce were all omitted from the squad, while Stephen McDonnell and Anthony Nash announced their retirement.

After an underwhelming championship campaign last year, there is pressure on the Lee-siders to deliver in 2021. They went about it in an impressive fashion on Sunday afternoon.

The addition of Donal O’Grady in the backroom team looks to have given Cork a real bounce. There was a crispness to their passing, and they looked sharper than most teams on a weekend before which counties only had three weeks of collective training.

Shane Barrett and Jack O’Connor threatened alongside Patrick Horgan in the full-forward line, and the bench made a real impact with Alan Connolly and Shane Kingston combining for three goals between them.

The Rebels know stiffer tests lie ahead, and even five league wins would mean little if they lose their Munster Championship semi-final against Limerick in July.

But there were signs on Sunday that Cork are ready to hit the ground running.

Are Dublin forgetting how to win?

Dublin came roaring into their contest against Kilkenny in the second half on Saturday, drawing it level 0-16 to 0-16 at the water break. However, the Cats dominated the final quarter to win 1-20 to 0-18.

Having gone through the entirety of 2020 without a win over any team ahead of them in the perceived pecking order, are the Dubs forgetting how to win?

Not since the 2019 Leinster Championship victory over Galway have Mattie Kenny’s charges defeated ‘top-tier’ opposition.

Granted, it is early in the season and Saturday’s loss to Kilkenny will be quickly forgotten should they deliver in the championship.

Kenny was optimistic despite the defeat: “Our focus in the league is to get matches into the lads…We want to build and to sharpen our hurling and games like this are going to bring us on a lot. The league and games like this are going to be really good preparation for the championship. We’re happy with the performance, the result didn’t go our way but we stuff to work on and lots to take into the league going forward.”

However, should they fail to deliver a victory against Clare or Wexford in the coming weeks, they will be heading into the championship with no significant victories upon which to draw from the last 24 months.

Have Offaly turned a corner?

Michael Fennelly’s rebuilding job was always going to be an arduous one in the Faithful County. The Ballyhale man took the reins at the start of 2020 with Offaly hurling at a low ebb.

Last year, they finished third in Division 2A of the National League, and failed to claim either of the two promotion spots from the Christy Ring Cup back to the Joe McDonagh.

However, there were signs on Sunday afternoon that they have turned a corner. Eoghan Cahill led the way in a 3-25 to 3-9 win over Meath in Navan. The 16-point victory was an early statement of intent for the year ahead, dominating the Royals who will compete in a higher tier during the championship.

There is still a long road ahead, but after Sunday’s victory and their minor team awaiting the 2020 Leinster Minor Championship final against Kilkenny, perhaps Offaly hurling is finally back moving in the right direction.

Did the old system better serve Division 1’s underdogs?

Westmeath were hammered by Galway on Saturday. The 30-point winning margin laid bare the gap between the Lake County and the other five teams in Division 1A.

Westmeath turned in some credible performances during the 2020 league, coming within four points of Cork, and falling to eventual All-Ireland finalists Limerick and Waterford by nine points each. But after a disappointing 2020 championship campaign after the lockdown, they have struggled to find any momentum.

Westmeath appear to have been thrown to the lions, to a degree, with matches against Munster’s elite coming down the tracks in the coming weeks.

Since the change to the National Hurling League’s format after 2019, the 1A and 1B groups are no longer tiered.

It is difficult to see where they can find a win. Under the old system, Joe McDonagh Cup teams could realistically target some results in Division 1B. That is seemingly not the case for Westmeath this year.

Shane O’Brien’s charges could be in for a difficult few weeks as they prepare for the championship.

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