Jamesie O'Connor: There are contenders aplenty, but if truth be told it's Tipp's to lose
If Kerry's defeat of Dublin in the Allianz Football League final went some way towards puncturing the aura of invincibility that had built up around the Dubs, you'd imagine the drubbing handed out by Galway to Tipperary in the hurling equivalent has had a similar effect.
Prior to that, I don't think anyone regarded Tipperary as invincible, but early evidence pointed to the All-Ireland champions having picked up where they left off last September. They were so impressive in that first part of the season with solid victories over Dublin, Waterford and Clare despite key players being rested or unavailable and at a time when everyone else was struggling for any kind of consistency.
And they were making all the right noises to boot. It clearly hurts the established core of that team that they failed to kick on after 2010. Back then, with the talent they appeared to have at their disposal, none of us envisaged it taking six years for Tipp to get their hands on the prize again. But all that hurt - and there was plenty of it - was channelled into the sustained intensity they brought to the table last year, especially in the All-Ireland final. Not long after the final whistle, Michael Ryan made it clear he had no intention of waiting another six years, or having to answer the same questions that had dogged the team in the interim.
Yet for all Tipp's early excellence, Kilkenny, Cork and finally Galway blew holes of varying sizes in the theory that this year's campaign would be a one-horse race. Maybe we've forgotten, but a year ago there were huge question marks about Tipp heading into the championship. Did they have the mental toughness required? Were the newcomers - Michael Breen, Dan McCormack et al - good enough? Was the 2016 pattern of losing tight games in the league going to be replicated come the summer?
If we learned anything, it's how little relevance should be attached to league form, and the league final at the end of April in particular. You only have to look at Clare and how quickly things went south after their league victory 12 months ago.
In truth, we didn't learn anything new from the league final. Galway at full throttle and with their best 15 on the field, are a match for anyone. Tipperary, without Seamus Callanan, are a far less formidable proposition. Nonetheless the two sides that have provided the most compelling matches in the last two seasons are justifiably favourites to lock horns on the first Sunday in September.
Irrespective of how well or how badly the league has gone, every inter-county hurler looks forward with a degree of optimism to the championship and the potential it brings. When I first came onto the Clare team over 20 years ago, it was coming off an entirely forgettable league campaign which culminated in a relegation play-off, where Cork gave us a right hiding. Clare hadn't won a championship match in years; we had no form, confidence or momentum heading into the championship. By contrast, our first round opponents, Limerick, were flying - coming off a League final victory and being talked up as genuine Munster title contenders. Len Gaynor's infectious enthusiasm probably had a lot to do with it, but I can't recall a shred of negativity or fear in our camp heading into that game. Needless to say, the Sparrow gave an exhibition in my championship debut and, 70 minutes later, Limerick were out.
Three weeks later, we followed it up by shocking a Cork side that had been fancied to beat Kilkenny in the previous year's All-Ireland final. I walked off the pitch with Tony O'Sullivan's last ever Cork jersey draped around my shoulders in awe that I had shared the pitch with one of my boyhood heroes. Tipp then administered a heavy dose of reality in an 18-point Munster final drubbing.
The point is this: I don't see Cork pulling off a shock by beating Tipperary today, but don't underestimate the exuberance of youth and the raw hunger that comes with it. For a county with Cork's history and tradition, the famine-like lack of success adds to that. They have found some genuinely good young players with a lot of the athletic tools required to function at this level. The Cork management are on the right track with the youth policy they've chosen to pursue, and have to persist with, irrespective of this afternoon's result. In that sense, today will be a great barometer of where exactly they're at, and how far they still have left to travel.
If question marks remain about the Cork half-forward line, they still have an attacking unit able to rack up scores. What they don't have, on the available evidence at least, is anything like the goal threat Tipp present, and I can't see the Cork defence containing John McGrath, Callanan, Bubbles and the rest for 70 minutes.
What hasn't helped Cork's cause either is the wake-up call Tipperary received in the League final. That loss, and the manner of it, was bad news for them because it will refocus Tipperary minds. It'll be a massive shock if Tipp don't win today.
After hammering Cork 12 months ago, Michael Ryan's side coasted through the rest of the Munster campaign, but I don't see it being anything like as straightforward this summer. If Cork present a sterner test, Waterford await today's winners in the semi-final. The draw hasn't been particularly kind to the defending champions.
I lost back-to-back Munster finals in 1993 and '94 and, believe me, it hurt. The lack of interest Waterford showed in the knock-out stages of the league was a clear nod that Tipp in the Munster semi-final is their immediate target and the day they have to be ready for. That will be the first genuine heavyweight clash of the summer and a game that Tipperary will do well to come out of.
But just as in 2010, Tipp's All-Ireland chances might not be damaged beyond repair if they lose that game. Waterford, on the other hand, need silverware.
On the other side of the draw, Clare and Limerick are just two weeks out from their season-defining clash. Both will see it as a glorious opportunity to secure a place in the Munster final and the quarter-final spot on the fourth Sunday in July that goes with it. With Paul Kinnerk now in the Limerick camp opposing the two men - Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor - he forged such a highly successful partnership with in his time in Clare, there are sub-plots aplenty. That's outside of the natural rivalry that exists between the two counties. It's a game Clare simply have to win, and with Limerick in transition I think they will. If there's a team outside of the four that contested last season's semi-finals with the potential to do damage, it is Clare. How much damage remains to be seen but they, for me, are the summer's dark horses.
If Munster looks intriguing, Wexford's resurgence under Davy Fitzgerald, coupled with Kilkenny's apparent decline, makes their expected clash on June 10 the standout fixture in Leinster. Obviously Wexford have to overcome Laois beforehand. Laois will have no fears, but they don't defend well enough to have a genuine chance. That means Wexford Park will be rocking on that Saturday night in June when the Cats come to town.
With more question marks hanging over them than at any other time under Brian Cody's stewardship, the manager will surely relish the challenge. Eoin Larkin's retirement means another hugely influential and important cog is gone from the machine, and while teams still respect Kilkenny, Father Time's impact means they no longer fear them.
Wexford will believe they have a chance, but a stoked-up Kilkenny, carrying the perceived grudge of being bullied by the same opponents in the league quarter-final, is a pretty awkward proposition. It was 5-25 to 0-16 when they last met in the championship in 2015. The gap has closed significantly since and I expect Wexford to improve further from the league.
What I don't see though, is anything other than a Kilkenny win. Assuming Wexford emerge with their honour intact, it won't be the last we see from them this summer, and none of the Munster counties will relish drawing them in the qualifiers.
In the other half of the draw, it's impossible to look beyond Galway. It's unfortunate that again there appears to be more talk about the players Dublin don't have, for whatever reasons, rather than those they do. The news that neither of the Schuttes would be joining the panel after Cuala's club success can't have helped morale, and Mark in particular is a player they simply can't afford to take to the field against Galway without, and expect to win. There is talent there, but not enough just yet to be a force this summer.
Offaly will have their hands full with Westmeath in the other quarter-final, and irrespective of how that one goes, neither look capable of getting within single digits of Galway. After the league final performance, the genie is out of the bottle with the Tribesmen, and that will bring its own pressures. Jonathan Glynn's return is a big fillip given the attributes he brings, but cover is thin at the back and I'm not convinced their half back line as currently constituted is good enough.
They will need to beat Kilkenny in the Leinster final to convince themselves, as much as anyone else, that this is their year. They could win it all, but asked to put the money down, mine's going on Tipperary.