Heslin to inspire victory for Lakes
CARLOW v WESTMEATH (Carlow IT, Tonight 7.30)
JOHN HESLIN'S return from his shortlived Aussie Rules adventure couldn't have been more timely for Westmeath senior and U21 boss Pat Flanagan.
Playing at midfield, he helped the seniors record a morale-boosting victory over Galway last Sunday but his two challenge match appearances for the U21s have come at full-forward -- he scored 0-5 in a draw with Longford and 1-5 in an emphatic victory over Roscommon.
The Lake County are not perceived to be as strong as last year's highly rated crew, who fell to Longford at the semi-final stage, but they retain a hard core of senior county players, including Heslin, Ger Egan, Calum McCormack, Kevin Maguire and Trevor English.
Carlow have two notable advantages -- a competitive game in the tank, last week's 0-14 to 1-6 win over Wicklow, and home venue. They also have Luke Dempsey, seeking to plot the downfall of the county he once led to All-Ireland U21 nirvana.
ODDS: Carlow 11/4, Draw 15/2, Westmeath 4/11
Senior factor gives Longford a Wee edge
LOUTH v LONGFORD (Haggardstown, Tonight 7.30)
Now, when is the last time a team won a match by 50 points and were immediately made 2/1 underdogs for their next outing? Not sure of the answer, but it's happening tonight. We'll hazard a guess that Louth boss Colin Kelly, the former county star and a shrewd sideline operator, learned few enough pearls of wisdom as his team racked up 6-34 during last week's turkey shoot against Kilkenny.
The local consensus is that Kelly possesses a reasonably solid team; the only trouble may be that Longford look even stronger on paper, backboned as they are by the Leinster minor winners of 2010 and with eight survivors from the team that lost last year's provincial U21 final.
Midfielder John Keegan and forward duo James McGivney and Robbie Smyth have all played NFL with the high-flying Longford seniors this spring, and they are marginally favoured to negotiate this tricky fixture.
ODDS: Louth 2/1, Draw 15/2, Longford 1/2
Lilies set to thrive in Faithful's backyard
OFFALY v KILDARE (Gracefield, Tonight 7.30)
OFFALY caused the shock of the first round, overcoming the first-half dismissal of Paul McPadden to topple Meath 1-9 to 0-9. The emboldened 14 men duly went on a third-quarter scoring spree, the critical goal coming from impressive sub Mark Young. The trouble for Offaly is that tonight's task is arguably greater still. Kildare possess a quartet of senior panellists (Fionn Dowling, Tommy Moolick, Pádraig Fogarty and Seán Hurley) plus several of the young guns who helped Athy to county glory last autumn.
Suffice to say, there are high expectations surrounding the visitors -- but manager Alan Barry needs to deliver after suffering opening-round defeats in 2010 and '11, while they can expect no favours in the tight, partisan surrounds of Gracefield.
ODDS: Offaly 15/8, Draw 7/1, Kildare 8/15
-- FRANK ROCHE