Six counties are taking part in the new Joe McDonagh Cup, named appropriately after the former Uachtarán CLG from Galway. The teams are Antrim, Meath, Westmeath, Kerry, Carlow and Laois.
They play each other in round robin format with a tough programme of five matches spread over six consecutive weekends. There is a break after round three so there are no Joe McDonagh Cup games on the weekend of 27 May.
The final round of matches are on the weekend of the Sunday 10th June. One thing is for sure, each county is guaranteed five tough competitive matches and the strength in depth of each panel is sure to be tested in this format with little recovery time for injuries and the inevitable knocks from attritional championship games.
What happens next? Well let’s deal with the issue of relegation first. The Joe McDonagh Cup will revert to five teams in 2019 so there is both an automatic relegation slot and a relegation play off in place.
The bottom-placed team in the Joe McDonagh is automatically relegated to the 2019 Christy Ring Cup. The fifth placed team has a play off against the Christy Ring 2018 winners on 30 June to determine which of the two counties competes in the Joe McDonagh in 2019.
The top two teams in the round robin group play each in the Joe McDonagh Final on 1 July as the curtain raiser to the Leinster Hurling Final. Crucially both the top two counties also enter the Liam McCarthy at the preliminary quarter final stage and each play off against the third placed team from the Leinster and Munster championship groups on 7/8 July. It is hard to see any of the Joe McDonagh teams taking out one of the top three from either provincial group but you never know. If this happens they will progress to a Liam McCarthy quarter final proper on 15 July.
The 2019 Joe McDonagh Cup will also feature a relegated Liam McCarthy county. If any of Antrim, Meath, Westmeath, Carlow or Laois win the Joe McDonagh they are automatically promoted to compete in the Leinster championship group in 2019. If however Kerry were to win the Joe McDonagh they would have to play off against the bottom team in the Munster group to decide who plays in that competition in 2019.
It is harsh on Kerry that unlike other Joe McDonagh they would face another match on 21/22 July to decide relegation. In theory if Kerry were to win the Joe McDonagh on 1 July, they would play a preliminary quarter final on 7/8 July, a week after their final, if they were to win that a quarter final proper on 14/15 July and a Liam McCarthy relegation/promotion match on 21/22 July with the unlikely but slight possibility of a potential All Ireland semi final on 28 July.
The carrot of playing in a higher grade competition is key to all the competition structures in hurling with promotion and relegation in place. Two teams from the lower grade competition will enter the Liam McCarthy at a later stage after two are eliminated from Dublin, Kilkenny, Galway, Wexford and Offaly in Leinster and two from Clare, Cork, Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick in Munster. That in itself could be interested.