Deise face huge task to stem Premier tide
THIS is where the first of the really big bears gets shot. There are larger grizzlies in the jungle than Cork and Galway, but this pair, in turn, are bigger than those who've been barrelled out of the hurling championship over the last three weeks.
Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford, Galway, Cork and Dublin (decide on your own running order) were regarded as the top six at the start of play and it remains the same. Limerick have nudged a few rungs up the ladder and Antrim have the same target as usual -- trying to kick the ladder from under some big shot.
Getting into the All-Ireland semi-finals, via the provincials, is always the first aim of the main contenders; after that it's reaching the quarter-finals, either as beaten provincial finalists or qualifier survivors.
Failure is relative and depends on where you start from, but there's no doubt that the season is a dismal letdown for the big boys if they don't reach the quarter-finals.
That's very much the case with Cork and Galway, one of whom will leave the Gaelic Grounds this evening feeling that 2011 has been a washout. What's more, it will be followed by a cleanout.
High stakes then, for two sides whose style of play is made for high-quality action. They'll let each other hurl, dwelling essentially on the positive sides of their game.
That will make it an entertaining contest for neutrals, but supporters of either side can expect to go through a whole range of emotions, because there are as many uncertainties as absolutes about the teams.
Take Galway. Dire against Dublin, they hurled a completely different game against Clare last Saturday. Granted, Clare aren't a top-level force at present, but, even allowing for that, Galway went about their business in a highly efficient manner.
They carried out the basics much better, took the challenge to Clare from the start, got their rhythm going and maintained it all the way, while always looking as if they had more in reserve.
They were helped in attack by the return of Iarla Tannian and Ger Farragher, while things went right for Joe Canning and Damien Hayes in direct proportion to how they went wrong against Dublin.
Galway needed a confidence shot and, even allowing for Clare's shortcomings, they got it last Saturday. Also, they now have a largely full squad to pick from, so everything should be in place for them to press on, assuming of course that, having come out of their shell last week, they don't find another one to crawl into.
Cork will be trying to push them back in and, as history shows, the Rebels can be pretty good at it.
Having had six weeks to work on the lessons picked up in the Tipperary game and applied those in the wins over Laois and Offaly, they are well set up for this game.
So, too, are Galway, thus, whatever happens, there can be no excuses from the losers.
Pa Cronin's absence is a loss to Cork, but the return of Ronan Curran to centre-back, which releases William Egan to midfield, balances the books to a large degree.
With the exception of Stephen McDonnell, the Cork defence is much the same as it has been for a few years, but there are some changes in attack, especially in the full-forward line where Paudie O'Sullivan and Luke Farrell have locked down starting places this season.
Ever since they were drawn against Tipperary in the first round in Munster, it was always likely that Cork would have to go the qualifier route, but Galway would certainly have expected to make the quarter-finals through Leinster.
They failed, but will have taken considerable encouragement from the vast improvement they showed last week, albeit against a Clare team who played rather naively in the opening period when it was obvious that Galway were going all out for an early surge.
Cork will be far cuter, hoping that if they can make an early impression, it will lead to a return of the edginess which undermined Galway so disastrously against Dublin.
Still, I would expect Galway to be able to cope with what's thrown at them. They were third favourites for the All-Ireland at the start of the season and one bad display doesn't lead to a total collapse of ambition and the will to achieve it.
Galway to win and haul themselves right back into the All-Ireland mix.
TIPPERARY have scored 17 goals in their last five championship games, so it's pretty clear what Waterford have to do if they are to down the All-Ireland champions in tomorrow's Munster final.
Whether or not they can build the defensive wall necessary to repel the Tipperary onslaught remains to be seen, but a key part of their strategy has to be centred around keeping the 'goals against' tally to a minimum.
That presents another problem for Waterford. If they succeed in packing the channels where Seamus Callanan, Lar Corbett, Noel McGrath and Co can use their pace to launch cleverly-timed runs, how will Waterford generate enough attacking momentum to create sufficient scores to win the game?
Davy Fitzgerald has kept Waterford boxing above their weight over the last few seasons, but there's a limit to what he can do. Right now, Tipperary have greater resources which they are using well.
That, coupled with their confidence, will probably leave Waterford with too much to do, although their season will be by no means over after tomorrow.
Limerick can make most of 'free' pass
LAST Saturday's Limerick-Wexford qualifier raised an issue which, I have to say, left me mystified. Referee Michael Wadding awarded just five frees to Wexford in the course of the entire game and since they were way outfield, no scores came from them.
Limerick, in contrast, got 14 frees (five of which yielded points) which was also unusually low, although nearly three times as many as Wexford.
I couldn't see why the free count was so lopsided and would, if I were from Wexford, feel aggrieved. Five frees in 77 minutes (including stoppage time) -- are Limerick so supremely disciplined? No teams is!
Mind you, they deserved to win and are now well placed to deal with Antrim's durability and book a place in the quarter-finals. That's real progress after last year and it might not finish there either.
It's very hard to see Limerick losing today so, at the very least, they will finish the season in the top six, unlike Cork or Galway, one of whom will feel as if life has passed them by tonight.