THE long wait is over for Antrim hurling fans as they will get their first glimpse of life under Jerry Wallace on Sunday. Wexford provide the opposition in the first game of the new-look National Hurling League 1B and many will be intrigued as to whether the Cork man will put greater emphasis on the league, as opposed to his predecessor Dinny Cahill.
Wallace of course served under the Tipperary man two years ago when The Saffrons enjoyed their best year on the hurling field in many years when running Cork close in an All-Ireland quarter-final after beating Dublin.
The Midleton man then took his talents to Limerick last year where he worked with former All-Ireland winning colleague Donal O’Grady and the pair masterminded Antrim’s exit from the championship on a sunny evening at Parnell Park.
However, having admitted there is still ‘unfinished business’ with Antrim, Wallace has returned North much to the delight of the players who benefitted from his knowledge in 2010.
While some may have scratched their head over his decision to withdraw Antrim from the Leinster pre-season competition, the Walsh Cup, the Munster man says this has allowed his panel to get extra work done and said he can’t wait to get going against the Slaneysiders on Sunday.
“I am indeed (looking forward to the game) and I think the players are as well,” said the Midleton man.
“It is a great opportunity in our first game of the year against Wexford - a team with a lot of tradition - so it should be a great contest.
“We had a good pre-season and even though we didn’t play in the Walsh Cup, that could only have been two games.
“Instead we played a couple of challenge matches and I released the players last week to play for Ulster in the Railway Cup.
“That was a worthwhile exercise for those lads and gets us ready for Sunday.”
Wallace is without the Loughgiel contingent who are preparing for their All-Ireland final against Coolderry on St Patrick’s Day but there are still 30 names on his training panel for the league.
However, just 24 will make the cut for each home game while that number will be reduced to 20 when on the road.
Of course, Wallace is hoping the Shamrocks can give hurling in Antrim another boost by returning with the Tommy Moore Cup on March 17 but acknowledged the belief and confidence displayed by Loughgiel ahead of there semi-final victory has filtered through to the county panel.
“We are missing the Loughgiel players at the moment but I think everyone can take great confidence from what they have done,” added the Antrim boss.
“It gives everyone great belief and Loughgiel obviously had that against Na Piarsaigh as they had to wait 12 months to get back into a semi-final.
“The players said in their interviews leading up to that they were looking forward to it because they believed they would win.
“It is really great for Antrim hurling to have Loughgiel in the All-Ireland final on St Patrick’s Day so they will stay with the club and concentrate on their own performance while we will get on with it without them for now.
“As this is my first time up here I am trying to embrace as many players as possible. My training squad reflects that but I will just be taking 24 players on Sunday for the panel.”
Antrim lost their Leinster Championship quarter-final to Wexford in Wexford Park 3-16 to 1-11 so for those involved, this game presents an opportunity to right a few wrongs from that day.
A good start at home could well set up a positive campaign in a group which involves teams that are neither pushovers nor on a different level.
Each game is due to be tough but Wallace agrees that such a group will give his players the perfect opportunity to see where they really stand.
“There is a new manager in each of the teams so there will be fresh impetus with each of the teams this year,” added the All-Ireland winning coach.
“If you are a hurler you want to play with your county and test yourself against the best and Laois, Offaly, Wexford, Limerick and Clare are all top counties so it’s a great opportunity.
“We play on Sunday then have a two-week break before playing every week so it will be over by April 1 and we will know where we stand in relation to the other teams by then.
“We want to have a positive start and see what type of performance we can get out of the lads.
“It’s hard to predict anything at the moment. We will just have to see how we get on this Sunday.”