Midlanders set to maintain top-tier status

It may be just a curtain raiser to the headline act of the Ulster football final replay later today, but there is just as much riding on the Offaly hurlers' relegation semi-final showdown with Antrim at Croke Park (throw-in 2.15pm).

It may be just a curtain raiser to the headline act of the Ulster football final replay later today, but there is just as much riding on the Offaly hurlers' relegation semi-final showdown with Antrim at Croke Park (throw-in 2.15pm).

The guarantee of Liam McCarthy Cup status is available for today's winners and although a long way from the headiness of their 1998 All-Ireland success, John McIntyre's men are sure to turn in a determined performance at headquarters.

It's a definite chance for the NHL Division 2 champions and Ulster winners Antrim to cut loose at the tail end of a disappointing, and at times, embarassing season.

Offaly were almost shocked by Dublin a fortnight ago, relying on a late Aidan Hanrahan score to steal a 2-15 to 2-14 win.

Antrim, managerless since Dinny Cahill's departure earlier this month, went wiithout a win in the qualifiers. They should be outclassed again this afternoon and left bound for the relegation final, especially if the Faithfuls' championship top scorer Brian Carroll, who hit 0-8 against the Dubs, hits a groove.

In the evening's relegation semi-final (throw-in 7.00pm), Leinster rivals Laois and Dublin clash at Dr Cullen Park, Carlow.

Laois manager Paudie Butler has made four changes for the clash - goalkeeper Kevin Galvin, defenders Brian Campion and Cahir Healy, and midfielder Enda Maher all come into the side.

The Dubs, who should be inspired by their Under-21s' narrow loss to Kilkenny in last Wednesday's Leinster final at the same venue, have made just one alteration - league and championship top scorer and team captain David Curtin returns to bolster the forward ranks.

Curtin is back from a hand injury but it will be a struggle to help Tommy McNaughton's men prevail - Laois have already chalked up wins over the Dubs in this year's league (2-13 to 1-10) and championship (4-14 to 0-14).

McNaughton should be eyeing up a final chance, more-than-likely against Antrim, at avoiding the drop to the Christy Ring Cup by tonight's full-time whistle.

ANTRIM (SH v Offaly): G Magee; M Kettle, G Bell, C Herron; G Cunningham, K McKeegan, J Campbell; M Scullion, J Connolly (capt); M Herron, C McGuickian, P Richmond; J McIntosh, B McFall, A Delargy.

OFFALY: B Mullins; K Brady, G Oakley, D Franks; B Whelahan, R Hanniffy, B Teehan; D Hoctor, G Hanniffy; M Cordial, M O'Hara, B Murphy; B Carroll, J Brady, A Hanrahan.

LAOIS (SH v Dublin): K Galvin, B Campion, P Cuddy, C Healy, M McEvoy, John Walsh, S O’Dwyer; James Walsh, E Maher, J Rowney, J Young, L Tynan, T Fitzgerald, M Rooney, D Culleton.

DUBLIN: G Maguire; G O’Meara, S Hiney, J Cullen; D O’Reilly, R Fallon, G Bennett; D Sweeney, M Carton; E Moran, D Russell, T Moore; E Carroll, D Curtin (capt), K Flynn.

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