Cyril Farrell: Steady on there - the race for the All-Ireland title is not just a Kilkenny-Tipp two-way affair
Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30
If a survey of hurling followers were carried out last January, asking them to nominate the counties that would still be in contention for the All-Ireland title by mid-July, the majority would have named five of the six who actually are.
Dublin, Limerick and Cork would have support too but very few would have backed Wexford who have defied the odds by qualifying for the quarter-finals.
And a good thing it is too. It's always nice to see an outsider break into the inner circle so credit to Wexford and Liam Dunne. They lost a lot of players over the last year but have still managed to get themselves into the top six, which is a fine achievement.
Now you might think from reading and listening to comments since last Sunday that the quarter-finals and semi-finals are unnecessary exercises, mere distractions ahead of the inevitable Kilkenny v Tipperary big event in September. The odds back it up too, priced in a way that suggests Clare, Galway, Waterford or Wexford have little chance of beating the two favourites.
It's probably beyond Wexford but I'm surprised at how many people are convinced that a Kilkenny-Tipperary final is a certainty.
In fairness to Kilkenny, it's easy to understand why they are so highly regarded but where's the solid evidence to support the view that Tipperary are virtually alongside them, while Clare, Galway and Waterford are trailing some way back? It seems the school of being 'fiercely impressed by the last thing we've seen' has had a graduation ceremony since Tipperary's win over Waterford.
Yes, it was very impressive; yes there were signs that the addition of Séamus Kennedy, John McGrath and Michael Breen (as a starter rather than a sub) has strengthened the side and, yes, Michael Ryan set them up very cleverly but all that has to be weighed against Waterford's woes.
For whatever reason, they were totally flat. Derek McGrath will, of course, have to listen to nonsense about how his tactics were found out and how Waterford should readjust just about everything in an attempt to save the season.
Rubbish. It wasn't the system that let down Waterford. No, it was a day when most of their players seriously underperformed, leading to a collective meltdown which effectively made tactics irrelevant.
It was also a day for Waterford to forget as quickly as possible and go again. Of course, it will hit their confidence but that can be corrected.
Didn't Tipperary win the 2010 All-Ireland after losing to Cork by 10 points in the Munster first round?
Didn't Kilkenny win in 2012 after losing the Leinster final to Galway by 10 points and didn't Clare win the 2013 All-Ireland after an eight-point defeat by Cork in Munster?
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In my view, Waterford's race is a long way from being run this year, no more than Galway and Clare can be written off either in the rush to book Kilkenny and Tipp for the All-Ireland final.
Clare's win over Limerick was more comprehensive than the four-point margin suggested and, as they showed in 2013, they are well capable of rebuilding a season after losing in Munster.
They face Galway tomorrow week and whoever comes out of that will be a lot more dangerous in the semi-final than the All-Ireland odds suggest. It's very easy to be critical of Galway, dubbing them under-achievers etc but here's a question - why is the same accusation not thrown at Tipperary?
Clare have got a fair bit of stick too over the last two seasons and while Tipp would have taken criticism in their own county, the outside view appears to be different.
When they lose to Kilkenny - which they've done seven times in their last nine championship games, with one draw - it's usually put down to them being not quite good enough.
Yet when Galway lose to Kilkenny, they're deemed to be chokers or some other class of failures.
The reality is that every county has, with occasional interruptions, been second to Kilkenny for a long time. Tipperary's 2010 All-Ireland win eased some of them pressure on them but they have since joined the rest behind Kilkenny.
We all know why Kilkenny are again regarded as likely All-Ireland winners but I would suggest that with the exception of Wexford, who are stepping up in class now, the other four contenders are pretty much equal.
Granted, Tipperary hold an advantage in that they have arrived at the second last fence, whereas the others still have to negotiate the third last.
However, two of them will manage to do that and once they head for the second last fence alongside Kilkenny and Tipperary, the All-Ireland race will be a whole lot more open than consensus thinking would have it.