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The inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup set for a thrilling summer of hurling

With the advent of Super 8s, round-robin Munster and Leinster championships and more fixtures than one season seems fit to handle, it’s the inaugural Joe McDonagh Cup which makes the most sense and could potentially become the most exciting competition the GAA has introduced.

Featuring the second tier of inter-county hurling teams – Antrim, Carlow, Kerry, Laois, Meath and Westmeath – the competition will refresh the buzz of the game across these counties, with a huge amount at stake for the eventual winner. And, at the offset, it’s impossible to call a winner amongst the six teams.

In a format similar to the spring league, five rounds of action across May and June will separate the six teams, with the top two contesting the final in Croke Park on the 1st of July. This final will be a curtain-raiser to the Leinster hurling final.

An additional reward is each of the finalists will progress to the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, where they’ll play the third-placed teams from the Munster and Leinster campaigns.

But the real carrot for these teams is if the winner of the final is from Leinster, they’ll get promoted into the 2019 Leinster championship at the expense of the worst team in this year’s campaign. That’ll mean a Laois, or a Carlow, or a Westmeath will be meeting the likes of Galway, Kilkenny and Wexford with championship odds at stake.

If Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup, they’ll have to face the worst-placed team in Munster this year in a play-off to gain entry to next season’s provincial championship. A mountainous task indeed, and a means of protecting the high-quality Munster counties, but anything can happen over 70 minutes of hurling.

The stakes are high and the hurling is likely to be a reflection of that.

Looking at Laois and Antrim, they’ll be entering the cup the most battle-hardened after competing in the Division 1B hurling league. The experience of facing superior opposition will help, but the drop-off from them to the other four competitors is shorter.

“All six teams will fancy their chances,” Antrim captain Conor McKinley told GAA.ie.

“To me, they’re all 50-50 games. We know each other inside out. It’s a great format.”

Free-taker Neil McManus, who was ultra clinical during the league campaign, says the McDonagh Cup was Antrim’s number one target this season.

“The Joe McDonagh is what we’ve been focused on all year. Our goal was still to be in 1B, that didn’t happen, but this competition is one of our goals,” he told the Irish News.

The teams entering the cup with the most momentum are undoubtedly Carlow and Westmeath. The latter were fantastic in Division 2, going unbeaten in the group stage before bowing to Carlow in the Division 2 final.

Kerry managed three wins in the league, including a sixteen point victory over Meath. The Royals won two games, but narrowly lost out to Westmeath by a point and Carlow by four, so aren’t a million miles off the pace.

For these teams, the opportunity to express their hurling on the biggest stage of the summer is more than enough incentive.

“We’re in a competition where, if we’re good enough, if we hurl to our potential, we have a chance of getting to play on the big stage, and that is all it is, is a chance” Laois manager Eamonn Kelly told the Leinster Express. “It’s up to us the make the best of that opportunity.”

Hurling for the opportunity to play in a final in Croke Park, to enter the All-Ireland series in the middle of the summer, and to enter their respective provincial campaigns next year sets the Joe McDonagh Cup up for a thrilling inaugural season, with all six teams capable of going all the way.

Round 1 Fixtures

Saturday, May 5

Meath v Antrim – Pairc Tailteann, Navan, 3:00pm
Laois v Westmeath – O’Moore Park, Portlaoise, 3:00pm

Sunday, May 6

Carlow v Kerry – Netwatch Cullen Park, 2:00pm

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