Kilkenny and Tipperary dominance has prevented Championship from catching fire
Published 14/07/2015 | 02:30
Two years ago last weekend, the much acclaimed 2013 hurling championship reached a peak.
After Kilkenny and Tipperary in Nowlan Park there were two thrilling Thurles qualifiers that went to extra-time and a Munster final the following day that delivered a first provincial title for Limerick in 17 years ago.
Last Sunday threw up a Munster final that never really caught fire, preceded by two qualifiers that provided gripping finishes but were strewn with errors.
Is the propensity for hurling managers to set up with greater tactical emphasis having an impact? Two goals in 210 minutes over the weekend would appear to suggest it has.
With five games left (barring replays) there is still the potential for this Championship to find the spark of 2013 and 2014. As the race narrows to six we assess the state of play.
Still the market leaders, still the standard-setters. Some of the best-known passengers have stepped off, but the train sticks to the schedule without a hitch.
All they ever needed was one or two players coming in and stepping up, and Ger Aylward and Joe Holden have done just that.
Holden is only the fourth full-back on a Brian Cody-selected Kilkenny Championship team but he has fitted in seamlessly in the absence of the retired JJ Delaney.
However, it's the assumption of responsibility by TJ Reid and Richie Hogan - a process that began in earnest last year - that continues to drive the Cats relentlessly.
Their squad doesn't look to have been impacted too significantly, even without the stellar names that left, and they were able to see off Galway despite not having Richie Power and Michael Fennelly available.
Key question: Can Richie Power recover fitness first and then form to make the same intervention as he did in the latter end of last season?
So Tipperary don't do battles? Manager Eamon O'Shea was glad to knock that one on the head in the warm glow of a successful Munster Championship campaign that has twice seen a requirement to dig deep when pressure has come on, against Limerick and Waterford.
Tipperary showed grit and great application to deal with Waterford, the displacement of fluid, flashy hurling with a more pragmatic approach illustrating a steeliness that hasn't always been evident.
The deployment of Brendan and Padraic Maher in deeper roles than their jersey numbers suggest has given them a very solid platform.
John O'Dwyer's form has been electrifying with his ability to stay the pace.
Still the team most likely to depose Kilkenny.
Key question: Can Noel McGrath continue his recovery sufficiently to get himself back in the frame in the run-in? The vibes for McGrath, who has been around the camp in recent weeks, are good and that could give the Premier a huge boost.
Bloodied a little but largely unbowed after their Munster final defeat at the weekend, their first of the season after a nine match unbeaten run.
If there is a consolation, it's that they curbed the extensive goal threat Tipperary teams inevitably pose, a testament to the system Derek McGrath has put in place.
As they climb to a higher altitude it was somewhat inevitable that the strain on the system would come.
The season still offers them a lot and the prospect of an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, where no Waterford senior team has been for four years now, is too inviting.
Key question: Do they retain their compact shape or seek to get more support into Maurice Shanahan?
For the fourth successive year Jimmy Barry-Murphy has guided a Cork team to All-Ireland quarter-finals at least.
In each of his three years so far Cork have got to an All-Ireland semi-final. This time the passage has been a little rougher but the seem to be coming out of the turbulence on the right side.
JBM's management have made a series of adjustments since the Waterford defeat with Mark Ellis' role as sweeper the pivotal move.
Brian Murphy's return has brought stability to defence as two clean sheets for Anthony Nash will testify.
Key question: Can they create and take enough goal chances to live with Kilkenny and Tipperary?
Anthony Cunningham shook hands with Brian Cody after the recent Leinster final and said he'd see him in an All-Ireland final.
For that to happen Galway will have to take down Cork and Tipperary and, given their inconsistency, that's a tall order.
They have plenty going for them. Joe Canning is arguably having his best season since 2012, while Cyril Donnellan's recovery from a career-threatening groin injury has also given them a different dimension at half-forward.
But they need Cathal Mannion to re-discover the form that saw him put Dublin so quickly to the sword in their replay.
Key question: Is their full-back line good enough to survive at this level?
Down the home straight in Thurles on Saturday night Liam Rushe came off his centre-back position to make two spectacular catches that helped keep Dublin in the ascendancy against Limerick.
Ger Cunningham was on the sideline in close proximity to both, a grandstand view to re-assure him that positioning Rushe where is strongest will always benefit the team.
The restoration of Rushe and Conal Keaney to their former positions gives Dublin better structure but Waterford may have the game to thwart them.
Key question: Can Dublin get more from Danny Sutcliffe?