By James McMahon
The battle for hurling supremacy in Leinster gets under way at a time when April showers can still bring the prospect of May flowers.
This early start is due to the introduction of a round-robin element and Sunday next sees the opening tussles in this year’s quest to lift the Bob O’Keeffe Cup.
Five counties – Antrim, Carlow, Laois, London and Westmeath - will be grouped together in a league format where every team plays each other once.
The top two teams in the league will advance to the Leinster quarter-final.
The county placed fourth will play the Christy Ring Cup winner in a promotion play-off on 14 June.
The bottom-placed side drops down to the Christy Ring competition for 2015.
At the Leinster quarter-final stage, Wexford, Galway, Kilkenny and Offaly enter the fray.
Liam Dunne’s Wexford will face the winners of the round robin series on 1 June. Also on the same day, the runners-up in the five-team league will take on Galway.
The remaining quarter-final tie sees Kilkenny face Offaly on 7 June in Nowlan Park. This will be Sky Sports’ first foray into the broadcasting of Gaelic games.
2013 champions Dublin receive a bye to the semi-final, where they will face the Wexford v Round Robin Winner on 14 June.
The other last-four clash on 22 June sees either Kilkenny or Offaly take on the victor from the Galway v Round Robin Qualifier game.
Croke Park will host the Leinster Hurling final on Sunday 6 July.
Who will mix it with the big boys?
As to which counties will progress from the round robin, taking league form into account is the most reliable gauge.
Seamus ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett’s Laois comfortably retained their Division 1B status and will be favoured by many to top the group and so set up a date with Wexford on the June Bank Holiday weekend.
The midlanders have a bye on the opening weekend, so the focus will be on Ruislip, where London host Carlow and in Ballycastle, as Antrim welcome Westmeath.
Laois begin away to Westmeath on 4 May, but crucially have home games against Carlow and Antrim – contests that will probably decide who advances.
What about the business end?
Amid great excitement and euphoria, Dublin hurlers ended a 52-year wait to lift the Leinster title last July.
On paper, you would fancy them to reach a fourth decider in six years. However, Daly’s charges nearly came unstuck against Wexford in their drawn encounter last year, so they will approach with caution another date with Liam Dunne’s side this summer, if such a meeting comes to pass.
Much has been said about Offaly’s struggles this spring. Only 600 people were in attendance to see them beat Kerry to preserve their Division 1B status in the league.
A game against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park is now a daunting prospect for them. Offaly teams never lacked for spirit and self-belief in their pomp and Brian Whelehan’s side must now find similar traits to ensure that 2014 won’t be a complete write-off.
The Cats are seeking their first Leinster crown since 2011. A potential semi-final clash with Galway offers much intrigue, more so if the Tribesemen can get back to the pitch that saw them blitz the Black and Amber in the provincial final two years ago.
All told it looks like being a competitive championship right from the off.
Kilkenny are favoured by the bookies to regain the title, with Dublin and Galway, in that order, next in line.
However after the glorious and unpredictable summer that was 2013, it's best to see how the main contenders begin their summer journeys before making any definite predictions as to who will reign supreme on the first Sunday in July.