WITH the shadow boxing of pre-season now complete, it’s full-steam ahead for Antrim’s hurlers as the countdown to the National Hurling League steps up a gear.

The Saffrons will travel to Aughrim to face Wicklow on Sunday, January 26 to begin their Division 2A campaign and will go into that game with plenty to be optimistic about following a positive pre-season.

Darren Gleeson’s side claimed the Conor McGurk Cup and while they lost out to Offaly by one in last Sunday’s Kehoe Cup final, they were well in contention right until the final whistle although there is still room for improvement.

One aspect of this panel is the strength in depth with more players still to filter back and Gleeson is relatively happy with how things have gone in the early stages.

“It (competition for places) should be driving fellas on,” said the Tipperary native.

“There are some who got jerseys today who will be disappointed with their performance and there are others who are chomping to get back into the team.

“We've a range of injuries there, as do Offaly, so it will be interesting when we've a full squad to take from.

“Everyone in there is training really hard and that's all I can ask for. We've full commitment and full dedication.

“We've Joe (Maskey) coming back in from his club commitment s there too and other guys who will have been disappointed there today to have pulled up (injured) late which was unfortunate, but that's hurling.”

Gleeson is in his first year as team manager, as is Offaly boss and fellow All-Ireland winner Michael Fennelly.

The Kilkenny man’s task has been to steady the Faithful ship that has been in freefall over the past few years with relegation down to the Christy Ring Cup and Division 2A where they will host Antrim next month.

The Offaly boss was happy his side claimed the win on Sunday to help build some confidence after a difficult few years for hurling in the county.

“It's a good start to the year, but I was more impressed with the performance more than anything,” said the 2009 All-Ireland wining captain.

“It was a huge battle in terms of what Antrim would bring, but we knew that as they're big men too so I was delighted with that. There was only a poc of the ball in it at the end so it could have went either way and we have to be realistic about that. The performance was key for me and that was a great game to get before the League gets underway in a fortnight's time so I'm very happy.”

It is certainly a busy time for the Offaly manager who will line out for his club, Ballyhale Shamrocks in Sunday’s All-Ireland Club Hurling final at Croke Park against Tipperary’s Borris-Ileigh.

Juggling the playing commitments with his new managerial role hasn’t been an issue and after this weekend – barring a draw – he will be able to fully focus on his Offaly team.

There is also an added intrigue to Sunday’s club final as he will come up against Johnny Kelly, one of his Offaly selectors.

“Everything will calm down for me after next weekend so it's good,” he reports.

“Everything has been working out okay there, but I have a big test against Johnny's team next week and that will be a monster battle, probably our biggest test in a long time I'd say.

“As long as we perform on the day is the key thing and if the scoreline at the end is for us then great.”

There is no added distraction for Antrim’s Gleeson as the Portroe man will spend the next week fine-tuning his team ahead of that trip to Wicklow next Sunday.

Antrim scored a handsome win over the Garden County in the Kehoe Cup back in December, but Gleeson warned they will face a much sterner test next week.

“We won't get it easy in Aughrim in two weeks' time against Wicklow,” he stressed.

“We played them a few weeks ago and they were down a lot of their team so we will really focus on them. They are our initial target and we'll go through the schedule from there.”