CIT ambitions stretch far beyond this opening group fixture, atoning for last year’s final defeat is their sole target this spring.
Buoyed by the return of Aidan Walsh, Pat Mulcahy’s outfit can call on the talents of Cork centre-back Mark Ellis, half-forward Bill Cooper and Tipperary sharpshooter John O’Dwyer.
DCU have failed to advance beyond the group stages since joining the top tier in 2011, but the pedigree of hurlers enrolling at the north Dublin university is improving — Galway senior Padraig Breheny, Kilkenny’s Pat O’Carroll and Wexford’s Tony French are their leading figures.
Nicky English remains on as UCD manager and it is the same faces on the field who will again drive their bid to end the university’s 14-year wait for Fitzgibbon glory.
The team’s central spine, featuring Wexford pair Matthew O’Hanlon and Conor McDonald, Kilkenny’s Cillian Buckley and Dublin’s Cian O’Callaghan, is among the strongest in the competition.
St Pat’s are really up against it here, though confidence will be bolstered by last weekend’s Kehoe Cup win over Longford.
The majority of this NUIG side are graduates of the team that was piped at the post in the 2013 All-Ireland Freshers decider. Conor Cleary and Bobby Duggan have already impressed for the Clare seniors this spring, while Ahascragh brothers Padraig and Cathal Mannion figured in the maroon and white.
Edged out at the quarter-final juncture of the league by eventual winners IT Carlow, Brian Lohan’s UL outfit is packed with inter-county talent — Jack Browne, Tony Kelly, Cathal McInerney, John McGrath and Jason Forde the pick of the bunch.
Away assignments don’t come much tougher than a trip to the Mardyke. GMIT, led by Galway senior Jason Flynn and former All-Ireland-winning minors Paul Hoban and Neil Keary, could be on damage limitation duty from early on if they’re not tuned it.
Brian Hartnett and John Power are both ruled out for UCC through injury, though their absence should prove inconsequential. UCC’s ability to push Limerick all the way to the line in last weekend’s Waterford Crystal Cup semi-final is a strong indication of the strength-in-depth of Ger Cunningham’s panel.
It was WIT who emerged victorious this time last year, but DJ Carey has assembled a hugely competent IT Carlow squad for the 2015 campaign. Stephen Maher, Chris Bolger and Jack Fagan hit a combined 3-12 in the league final win over UCC last month, and with Kilkenny’s Aidan Fogarty featuring too, theirs is an impressive forward unit.
Jake Dillon and Harry Kehoe are among the survivors from last year’s all-conquering WIT side, with Austin Gleeson set for his Fitzgibbon debut. They’ll be pushed all the way here.
Maynooth return to the top tiercourtesy of last year’s Ryan Cup win. Both sides will appreciate the importance of victory here with tougher tests against IT Carlow and WIT coming down the line.
Colm Barry (Cork), Declan Hannon (Limerick), Niall O’Meara and Seamus Kennedy (both Tipperary) could prove the difference for the visitors.
Verdict: Mary I
The hosts were dealt the easiest hand of all the main contenders and Davy Fitzgerald will be keen to issue a statement of intent on the opening afternoon of fare. Tony Kelly may have departed to neighbouring UL, but the Clare imprint is still highly visibly — David Reidy, Jamie Shanahan and Peter Duggan bringing a wealth of underage experience and success to the table.
Kevin Ryan has added the UUJ portfolio to his Antrim role, backboning the team with Saffron stickmen Ciaran Johnston, Eoghan Campbell and Stephen McAfee.
Words: Eoghan Cormican