Champions Na Piarsaigh put their Limerick SHC crown on the line this Sunday against Kilmallock in the competition semi-final.
FROM the outset of the championship, Na Piarsaigh and Kilmallock dominated the predictions as potential Limerick senior hurling champions for 2012.
This Sunday, at 3.45 in the Gaelic Grounds, the champions and champions of 2010 come head-to-head at the semi-final stage of the Limerickâ€™s Live 95FM sponsored Limerick SHC.
The bookies make Na Piarsaigh the slightest of favourites but few agree on the outcome.
At senior level, clashes have not been frequent but at underage the two clubs have dominated the hurling scene in recent time and two youthful panels will be more than familiar with each other from some epic U-21 tussles.
Of course the eagerly awaited semi-final also brings together two former Clare senior hurling management colleagues with Sean Stack and Tony Considine serving as selectors to Ger Loughnane when Clare lost to Kilkenny in the 1999 All-Ireland semi-final.
On Sunday, Stack finds himself in the same situation at which Considine failed last season - trying to motivate the champions to regain their crown.
There is no doubting that Kilmallock took their eye off the ball last season but have come back refreshed this season.
Of course Na Piarsaigh went as far as Februaryâ€™s All-Ireland semi-final.
That meant that the months of March and April were lost to intense preparation for the 2012 championship.
â€œWe needed to refresh,â€ explained Na Piarsaigh manager Sean Stack this week.
â€œItâ€™s a new situation for us because everyone wants to raise their game against the champions and that was evident in the group games. We just about survived the group stages but have been going well again lately,â€ outlined the Sixmilebridge man.
â€œWe can only hope that we are back to the form of last year and I think we can play better if everything comes together on the day.â€
Stack is in his third season with the Caherdavin men and can remember back to the last meeting with Kilmallock when The Balbec were 2-18 to 1-8 winners in the semi-final of 2010.
â€œWe have matured a lot from that day. There is a big difference between 18 year olds and 20 year olds,â€ said Stack.
â€œWhen the pressure came on in that game we didnâ€™t know what to do but it is different now because we have lads than can stand up on different days.â€
He reports a full panel for Sunday with last seasonâ€™s regulars Kieran Bermingham and Pat Gleeson back in contention but likely to start from the bench with young guns Niall Buckley, Adrian Breen and David Sheppard all impressing in the senior ranks this term.
And, all the emerging talent had beaten Kilmallock at underage level. At senior level they remain the one team that Na Piarsaigh have never beaten.
Victories over Adare, Patrickswell and Ahane in recent years have helped to shape their current side and victory on Sunday would make them the hottest of favourites to retain their crown.
But Kilmallock set out in 2012 with dethroning the champions as their only goal.
They collected the county league title last week and while that will be of little interest to them if they lose on Sunday it does stand to prove their consistency this season.
While they lost to Ahane in their final group game, it could very well stand to them when the game on Sunday hangs in the balance.
They have an injury concern over Bryan Oâ€™Sullivan with Shane Oâ€™Donnell and John Kelly carrying slight knocks.
The cream of Limerick hurling talent will be on display in this tie.
Both sides have forward power aplenty and it will be the defence that gets on top that will win out the day.
Kilmallock have looked uneasy at the back in some games and donâ€™t have a settled unit. Kevin Oâ€™Mahony is back for Kilmallock and adds experience to their full back line.
The men in green are strong in midfield and would hope to gain an advantage here but across the field its very difficult to see where either side can edge it.
For Kilmallock Graeme Mulcahy is key - as he was for Limerick this season.
Depriving his possession will be key for Na Piarsaigh and thatâ€™s where midfield can be vital.
At the other end the out-and-out poachers are more plentiful with Kevin Downes, Adrian Breen and Shane Dowling all credible goal scoring threats.
It is this potential for goals that I think can help Na Piarsaigh to advance on next monthâ€™s county final on October 7 in the Gaelic Grounds.
Prediction - Na Piarsaigh