Kings have lost their crowns as club battle commences

THERE was a time when county championship success meant rounds. Not of the pitch, but of pints and of pubs, with chests out, heads held high, and the all-important cup in tow.

Not any more though. County honours now mean more laps, press-ups and hardship in the cold and mud. Domestic victory is now seen as a gateway to provincial honours and for the dreamers, a run-out on Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.

The first forays in the AIB provincial club championships will be taken tomorrow, with hurling action in Leinster, Munster and Ulster marking the launch of a hectic seven weeks in the race for the provincial crowns.

Already, the landscape of the competition has changed. Neither Caltra of Galway nor Newtownshandrum of Cork, the 2004 All-Ireland hurling and football champions, will be defending their titles as they have lost their county championship crowns.

Killererin replaced Caltra in Galway, while either Cloyne or Na Piarsaigh will be crowned Cork hurling champions. St. Brigid’s of Dublin and Loup of Derry, the 2003 Leinster and Ulster football champions, are also out of this year’s race.

In Munster, Kerry champions Kilmoyley face the mighty Toomevara in Lerrig at 3pm. Toome, who defeated Éire Óg/Golden in the Premier decider, won the corresponding tie last year 3-18 to 2-11.

The visitors are overwhelming favourites but county star Tommy Dunne down-plays such status: “I guess that we may be favourites with some but we don’t see it like that.

“It took us a long time to beat them last year in Thurles and Blackrock struggled against them the year before down in Kerry.

“The Munster club is very important to us and we are treating it very seriously, as we do every competition. Hopefully we can have more success this year than before.”

Tony Delaney and Mickey Bevans are concerns for Toomevara, while Kilmoyley have doubts about Maurice Murnane and Brendan Harris.

It’s a busy Sunday in Leinster with three games scheduled. Laois champions Portlaoise travel to Westmeath and Castletown Geoghegan.

Portlaoise claimed their 23rd Laois SFC title and completed a senior championship double for the first time since 1991 when they eased to victory over Emo (0-15 to 0-6).

The visitors are fancied to advance against a Castletown side who defeated Loughlene Gaels in the domestic decider.

“Portlaoise will be strong favourites. Castletown are without their corner backs Kevin Jackson and Barry Whelan, while county hurler Derek Gallagher is also a doubt, ” explained Westmeath PRO Patrick Doherty.

“There is good news though, as Ronan Whelan is back from suspension.”

Carnew Emmetts, who won the ill-tempered Wicklow county final against Glenealy at Aughrim, hope to make headlines for the right reasons against Wolfe Tones of Longford in Arklow (3pm). Fighting broke out on the sidelines and involved substitutes and players from both teams. The matter is being investigated by the county board.

Navan hosts the clash of Kilmessan, (Meath) and Pearse Óg, (Louth).

The Meath champions landed their third consecutive SHC title when defeating Trim three weeks ago. One name jumps of the team sheet. Nickey Horan has plied his trade with Meath and in the Railway Cup with Leinster. Horan was also the first Meath man to be nominated for a hurling Allstar.

County PRO Barry Gorman said: “They also have a number of good footballers, many of whom reached the county junior final. David Donnelly, the full back, won a senior football and senior hurling in the same position in the same year, which is a first.”

Casement Park hosts a double header of hurling with Carrickmore (Tyrone) meeting Rossa (Antrim) while Dungiven (Derry) face Ballygalget (Down) in the second of the day.

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