Allianz Hurling League Division One, Group B
Antrim v Tipperary (Corrigan Park, Sunday, 1.45pm)

THERE will be something of a celebratory feel around Corrigan Park on Sunday as Antrim welcome Tipperary in their final League fixture with the pressure well and truly off.

Division One hurling is assured for Darren Gleeson’s charges and they welcome his native county to West Belfast with the Premier having already sealed top spot in Group B (they have the head-to-head tie-breaker over Kilkenny should it come to that) and therefore already know they play the second-placed team from Group A in the semi-final.

Therefore, with the game something of a dead rubber, from an Antrim perspective, it can mark the official start of their Championship preparations.

That begins with a home fixture against Dublin on April 22, so the coming weeks will be used to get ready for the step up to the white heat of MacCarthy Cup hurling.

Of course, it doesn’t mean they will simply roll over against Liam Cahill’s Tipperary on Sunday as they have been competitive throughout the campaign and will want to finish up on the right note.

A win would be excellent, but a performance is a must and this Sunday may give Gleeson the opportunity to give game-time to those who have been biding their time so far - a likely scenario for the visitors also.

“We can have a cut off Tipp here and then go into the trenches for four or five weeks to get ready for the first two matches in the Leinster Championship: Dublin here (Corrigan Park) and Wexford away,” he said after Sunday’s win over Laois.

“Our focus is now on Dublin and also the injury list as you can see what we’re dealing with in terms of injuries.

“We mightn’t get the results week-in, week-out, but we’re competitive and are within a couple of scores of all those teams - that’s progress.”

It was a Saffrons sweep last weekend with the U20s and U17s winning Ulster titles on Saturday, while the seniors did their job on Sunday.

The aim for Gleeson has been to put the structures in place for something of a conveyor belt of players coming through to bolster the first team each year and while some have got a feel for the step-up to senior inter-county, there is still work to be done to get to that level.

Rian McMullan, Seamus McAuley, Paul Boyle and Tiernan Smyth have all shown glimpses of what they can deliver, while Rory McCloskey and the McGarrys - Christy and Enda - are names for the future.

Remaining at the top table in League and Championship is vital for Antrim to progress and the Antrim boss believes the future is bright.

“We’re going into our fourth year of Division One next year, which is great,” Gleeson reflected.

“We’re in the Leinster Championship which is really important that we bed ourselves in now as well. It can be a battle for a few years as we’re just laying the foundations for what’s coming.

“We have to drive what we can into it as there is a limited amount of hurling that’s put in front of them at minor and U20 club championships as well. They need as much hurling and as much exposure as they can get for us to go up.

“I’ve said before that whoever comes behind us will probably get the benefit if we can stay fighting for it.”

Some of those younger faces may get their chance on Sunday as there will have been plenty of sore bodies after their big win over Laois.

The Championship preparations now step up a gear but heading in with a win over a traditional powerhouse would put an added spring in the step.

“We’ve two points on the board, but we’ll attack this week ahead of Tipperary as we want another two points on the board,” said Michael Bradley who played a starring role against Laois.

“We don’t make any excuses, but we went to Dublin and Waterford looking for two points.

“Darren is always about working through the League, even in the two-week break after Dublin we did a fair bit of running to prepare for the Championship. We want to hit that running as that’s where you will be judged.”