Kilkenny 2006-2010: Only five real tests in 19 championship games
IF it's remarkable that Kilkenny are pursuing their 20th successive championship win tomorrow, it's quite extraordinary just how infrequently they have been pushed to the limit of their capabilities over the last four seasons.
Last year's All-Ireland final against Tipperary was the only game where they trailed heading into the final eight minutes, which is testimony to the durability of the foundations they put down over the first hour.
However, on the rare occasions that the opposition sustained the challenge as far as the red zone, Kilkenny's response has been swift and comprehensive. Clare and Cork discovered that in 2006; Galway in 2007 and Tipperary last year.
Only five out of 19 times have Kilkenny been really tested in the final 10 minutes. Indeed, they have never been behind over the final five minutes, but given their capacity to work through problems, they would probably have solved that puzzle too.
Galway certainly have good reason to recall, from their last clash in Croke Park, how Kilkenny can accelerate clear over the last lap. The sides were level nine times in the first hour in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, suggesting it would be tight all the way to the finish line.
However, Kilkenny injected a sudden burst of momentum, leaving Galway a distant speck in the distance.
Brian Cody has always bristled at suggestions that any game was easily won, irrespective of the final score. He repeatedly points out that unless Kilkenny were properly tuned in every time, they would be vulnerable. In other words, it might have looked easy, but that was only because all the component parts were fitted neatly into place in advance.
That may well be the case, but the fact remains that Kilkenny have usually strapped themselves into the driving seat before the hour mark and, on days when they haven't, the 'stewards to end-of-match positions' announcement has tended to jolt them into overdrive.
Still, there's no doubt that Kilkenny had to work harder last year than in previous seasons, which points to an improvement in standards in those just below them. Now the question is whether the gap has been bridged altogether.
We're a day away from finding out how one of Kilkenny's really big challengers have fared in their quest to cross that bridge since, well, the last time they -- or anybody -- did it in 2005.
All-Ireland semi-final and final
Clare were only a point behind after 63 minutes in the All-Ireland semi-final but Kilkenny, as is their wont, hit the accelerator on the run-in, outscoring their opponents by 0-7 to 0-0 in the closing minutes.
Kilkenny won the final 1-16 to 1-13, a margin which flattered treble-chasing Cork, who were six points adrift after 65 minutes. Ben O'Connor's 67th-minute goal revived Cork's prospects but, just as they had done all day, Kilkenny re-programmed the defensive codes and held out quite solidly.
Earlier Kilkenny had seen off Westmeath, Wexford and Galway with routine efficiency.
Galway were the only team to offer Kilkenny a sustained challenge to the hour mark but, as Clare discovered in the previous year's semi-final, the final 10 minutes is when the opposition need to be especially protective of the jugular.
Galway matched Kilkenny all the way to the 61st minute -- at which stage it was level -- but Kilkenny scored an unanswered 2-4 from there on to win 3-22 to 1-18.
Kilkenny were on a different level to Offaly, Wexford, Cork and Waterford. Cork, who were regarded as their first real test, were eight points adrift by half-time and made no inroads in the second half as Kilkenny cruised to a 1-23 to 0-17 win.
Waterford were outclassed in the final and after trailing by 17 points at half-time, they eventually lost by 23 points.
All-Ireland final, Leinster semi-final.
Unquestionably, Tipperary came closest to inflicting a first defeat on Kilkenny since 2005. The 2-22 to 0-23 scoreline comes nowhere close to indicating just how close this really was.
Once again, it was Kilkenny's power on the home stretch which made the difference. They trailed by two points after 62 minutes but out-scored Tipperary by 2-3 to 0-2 from there on.
Three months earlier, Galway twice led Kilkenny by five points in the Leinster semi-final but were floored by a points blitz and lost by four. Still, it was a serious examination of Kilkenny's early-season equilibrium.
Dublin were six points short after trailing most of the way in the Leinster final, and Waterford lost the All-Ireland semi-final by five points. That left Kilkenny with average winning margins of five points.
That's comprehensive by any standards other than those established by Kilkenny over the previous three seasons, when their average winning margin was almost 12 points per game.