Martin Breheny: Deise's re-emergence sparks renewed hope of championship fireworks
Hurling boasting more All-Ireland contenders than football
If the action in the Allianz Hurling League over the last 10 weekends has shown anything it is this: the field is bunching ever tighter at the top end.
All of which is exciting news as the focus for all except Cork and Waterford, who still have a Division 1 final to play, switches to the big summer action. The League final, a collision of contrasting styles and philosophies, certainly promises to be a tasty appetiser to the championship.
Cork brought a high-scoring game to several outings, averaging 31 points against Dublin (twice), Clare and Tipperary. Waterford's progress has been built essentially on solid security and an economical attack, where Pauric Mahony's consistent accuracy from frees has been hugely influential.
Yet, despite comfortably making the transition to beating 1A rather than 1B opposition, they remain in the outsiders' bay.
Given their wins over Wexford, Galway and Tipperary in their last three games, as compared to Cork's performances against Tipperary (where they lost), Wexford and Dublin, there is no obvious reason why the League final betting isn't close.
Instead, Cork are warm favourites at 8/13, with Waterford at 13/8. And when it comes to the Munster championship, Waterford are alongside Clare and Limerick at 13/2, despite the latter pair having to meet in the quarter-final, whereas Derek McGrath's squad are through to the semi-final, where they will meet Cork (7/4 for the title).
Waterford won't be in as way disheartened by the apparent lack of love for them in the markets but then they are used to it. Since ending the 39-year wait for a Munster title in 2002, Waterford have won it four times, the same as Cork and Tipperary, while Limerick have won once.
Despite that, Waterford almost always started each season behind the 'Big Two' in the betting and were behind - or level with - Clare and Limerick on occasions too.
It's the same now. And even at All-Ireland level, Waterford are only joint seventh favourites with Dublin, behind Kilkenny, Tipperary, Cork, Clare, Limerick and Galway.
Mind you, all eight are priced at 14/1 or less, whereas, in football, there are only five counties (Dublin, Kerry, Cork, Mayo, Donegal) in the same price range. Overall standards are more even in football across the various divisions but, at the top end, power is now concentrated in a smaller group than hurling.
That's one of the reasons why there's such a sense of anticipation about this year's hurling championship. For while Clare in 2013 were the only county to break the All-Ireland monopoly of the 'Big 3' since 1998, there's a feeling abroad, one reinforced by the League, that the race for Liam MacCarthy is more open than for a long time.
For while nobody would be daft enough to see Kilkenny's flirtation with relegation as a reliable signal of decline, the reality is that they were close enough to the main field last year, drawing with Galway and Tipp and beating Limerick by two points.
Kilkenny are the proven experts in finding a way to survive the tightest of finishes, a quality that won't be diluted. However, in many other facets, their rivals will believe that they are as good as Kilkenny.
Of course, Kilkenny's narrow escape from the drop has to be seen in the context of the weakened squad, due to a combination of Ballyhale's All-Ireland commitments and injuries.
Kilkenny no longer have the same depth of talent as in the past - hence three successive defeats against Dublin, Galway and Tipperary this year - something that never previously happened under Brian Cody.
However, if he can select from a full squad for the championship, Kilkenny will rightly be All-Ireland favourites.
Tipperary are tucked in behind them, despite their latest setback. With Kilkenny gone from this year's League, it was expected that Eamon O'Shea's crew would exploit the absence of their great tormentors and win the title.
Of course, it wouldn't match an All-Ireland success but if Kilkenny have won so many League titles over the last 13 years, would it not have been helpful for Tipperary to take some silverware back home?
Their failure to even reach the final after leading Waterford by seven points last Sunday hinted at another short-circuit problem, which has become all too familiar for this squad. At full power, they are outstanding, but still haven't quite figured out how to win a game when all the parts aren't moving in sync.
It's a flaw they need to rectify if they are to win an All-Ireland because every campaign produces a day when the win is far more important than the means.
Kilkenny's semi-final success over Limerick last year was a typical example. For while, Limerick hurled with high efficiency for long spells, it was also clear that Kilkenny weren't functioning at peak efficiency.
Yet, they calmly improvised and slowly manoeuvred their way out of trouble. But then, they are by far the best as doing that.
Still, it doesn't mean they are going to sweep to another All-Ireland title, as there's plenty opposition out there who can match them on a given day. Problem is, few have mastered the priceless art of consistency, with Galway leading that unfortunate category.
By comparison with most others, they enjoy a relatively good record against Kilkenny, yet have been utterly unable to combine it with the required reliability. Hence the long wait for their fifth All-Ireland title.
Still, there's hope in Galway and among all the other challengers, including re-energised Waterford, whose rapid re-emergence has already lit up the season.
And they still want to get rid of the U-21s
TIPPERARY U-21 footballers’ excellent win over Dublin last Saturday brings to 21 the number of counties that have reached the All-Ireland final in the 51-year history of the competition.
That’s seven more than qualified for the senior final in the same period.
It’s a substantial difference, showing that U-21 is an easier grade to break through traditional barriers than senior.
Tipperary’s progress has been so solidly attained that there’s every reason to believe the advances made at all levels will be enhanced over the coming years.
In the meantime, their presence in the final against Tyrone on Saturday week promises to be a great occasion as Tommy Toomey’s lads seek to land the big prize for the first time.
A win would see Tipperary join Cork and Galway as the only counties that have won All-Ireland U-21 hurling and football titles. Irrespective of how they fare, they have done Tipperary football proud.
And to think there are still many heavyweights in GAA administration who want to scrap the U-21 grade. Thankfully, they haven’t got their way and, hopefully, they never will.
Why does time of year impact on refs’ whistling habits?
CREDIT to Pauric Mahony, who scored 63pc of Waterford’s points total against Tipperary off placed balls, and to
Patrick Horgan, who posted 52pc by similar methods in Cork’s win over Dublin.
It brought their combined haul to 57pc of the total points for the two winners, underling how costly it was for the losers to get on the wrong side of referees James Owns and Barry Kelly.
Now, here’s a curious thing. Only 27pc of the points total in last year’s All-Ireland semi-finals and finals (draw and replay) came from placed balls in four games refereed by Owens, Kelly, Brian Gavin and James McGrath.
Every game is different, so obviously the free count will always vary, but it raises the question of whether referees are less inclined to intervene in the glamour championship games than earlier in the season.
Lets put it this way: I’m not sure that some of the frees awarded in Sunday’s games would be whistled up in Croke Park in August and September, even if the rules are the same