After nine long months, the shadow boxing is over and the action in the O'Neill's Men's All-Ireland Senior Singles Championhip will get underway in earnest again, writes Paul Fitzpatrick.
This year, 22 players will take place at the starting gate for a race which has been run since 1975 and, in that time, has only thrown up only 14 winners.
Interestingly, of the five men who have won the title on just one occasion, three are in the field again this time round, namely Eoin Kennedy (2002), Charly Shanks (2017) and the current holder, Martin Mulkerrins.
However, none of that trio will be in action this weekend in the opening rounds which take place at four venues - Multyfarnham, Kells, Saval and Cappagh.
Unfortunately, Meath's Brian Carroll has withdrawn injured from his clash with Antrim's Owen McKenna, a game which looked on paper possibly the tie of the round, but five interesting match-ups remain down for decision.
First up in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath on Saturday evening (6pm) is the meeting of Roscommon's Rikki O'Gara and Offaly's David Hope. Both men are powerful athletes with strong football backgrounds and a close, hard-hitting battle seems likely.
O'Gara, an Open Doubles finalist at the 2015 World Championships, has been busy on the circuit of late, losing 11-15, 12-15 to Darragh Daly at the Moycullen Open and in a tiebreaker (15-12, 8-15, 0-11) against Ger Coonan in the Gaffney Memorial last month.
Left-hander Hope, meanwhile, won the All-Ireland O35 Doubles in the big court last year and quickly slotted back into small court fare; he has lost out twice to Brendan Fleming in recent events, in a tiebreaker at the Golden Gloves in November and on a 14-15, 6-15 scoreline in the Nationals last week. A close battle is expected.
At Kilkishen, Co Clare (Saturday, 6pm), home club of Senior Doubles champ Colin Crehan, Gaway's Pat Conway will meet Ger Coonan of Tipp. Williamstown's Conway, who has secured senior status in both codes with Intermediate Doubles successes alongside Mulkerrins (60x30) and brother Ollie (40x20), is a hard-hitting right-hander but will have his hands full against the experienced Coonan, who is in his sixth season as a senior 40x20 player and lost out to Kennedy in the opening round of the Nationals but picked up a win over Darragh Daly in the Plate.
Elsewhere, Sunday's action serves off at 12 noon in Kells, Co Meath where the Funchion brothers from Kilkenny, Patrick and Peter, will meet Tyrone's Shane O'Neill and Mayo's Vinny Moran respectively.
The Cats have amassed considerable experience at home and abroad in recent years and while neither took part in last week's Nationals, Peter showed good form in 'the Gaffney', with an eye-catching 5, 2 win over Daly before giving the in-form Diarmaid Nash a decent argument in the quarter-final.
The methodical O'Neill recently lost out in the Ulster Senior Singles to clubmate Conor McElduff but is well capable of producing the goods on his day. Moran, meanwhile, who lost 13-15, 1-15 to Dominick Lynch (pictured) in the Masters A final at the Nationals, is one of the most skilful players in the game and when his radar is calibrated, he can pepper the bottom board with that booming left hand. However, on all known form, anything other than a double for the Funchions would be regarded as a mild surprise here.
Speaking of Lynch, he will also be in senior action at Cappagh, Co Limerick (3pm) when he takes on Cork's Daniel Relihan. The man from the Kingdom boasts a high level of conditioning and is a fierce competitor who has been on a tremendous run of success in overage grades.
He will, however, be giving up a decade and a half in age to the Liscarroll man, who had a good win against Kildare's Paul Moran in the Moycullen Open in mid-December and appears to be in good form. An intriguing tussle is expected.
O'NEILL'S MEN'S 40x20 SENIOR FIXTURES
Saturday 23rd February
Multyfarnham, Westmeath, OIC Orla Foy (087 1857452) at 6pm
Q1: Roscommon (Rikki O’Gara) v Offaly (David Hope)
Kilkishen, Clare OIC Pat Donnellan (085 1741601) at 6pm
Q2: Galway (Pat Conway) v Tipperary (Ger Coonan)
Kells, Meath, OIC Robert Fox (083 4408192) at 12noon
Q3: Kilkenny (Patrick Funchion) v Tyrone (Shane O’Neill)
Q5: Kilkenny (Peter Funchion) v Mayo (Vinny Moran)
Cappagh, Limerick, OIC Donal Hayes (087 2442604) at 3pm
Q6: Cork (Daniel Relihan) v Kerry (Dominick Lynch)