'Kilkenny, Cork and Tipp will win every All Ireland from now until Kingdom come'
A double All-Ireland hurling medal winner has expressed fears that the Liam MacCarthy Cup may never again winter outside Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork.
Danny Owens, an Offaly star in the 1980s and now manager of the history-making Kilcormac-Killoughey side that won the county senior hurling title for the first time last month, believes that the championship system has tightened the 'Big Three's' grip on All-Ireland power to such a degree that it may never be unlocked again.
And, while he is not advocating a return to the straight knockout system that applied up to the end of 1996, he says it greatly increased the likelihood of a broader All-Ireland title spread.
"In my opinion, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork will win every All-Ireland from now until kingdom come," said Owens.
"You might catch one of them on a given day but not all three. Over time, there's always one or two of them going well.
"We saw it this year with Galway. They caught Kilkenny fair and square in the Leinster final but Kilkenny still ended up as All-Ireland champions after beating Galway in the final (replay).
"That's what happens when the likes of Kilkenny get another chance against a team that beat them earlier on."
Owens' prediction that the 'Big Three' will dominate indefinitely comes against a background where they have created a championship record by winning the last 14 All-Ireland titles between them -- with Kilkenny landing nine of those.
The three-way control of the last 14 titles is in marked contrast to the previous 11 titles, which were shared by seven counties, with Offaly, Clare, Wexford and Galway joining the 'Big Three' in the winners' enclosure.
The 2000-09 decade was the first in championship history that Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork won all 10 titles. Cork closed out the previous decade with a title win while Kilkenny and Tipperary have won the first three titles of this decade, making it by far the longest run of dominance by any three counties.
Owens believes that the breakthroughs made by Galway (1980), Offaly (1981), Clare (1995) and Wexford (1996) were all helped by a straight knockout championship.
"I know people wouldn't go for it nowadays, which is fair enough, but there's no doubt it increased the chances of the All-Ireland titles going somewhere other than Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork.
"At least when you beat them once back then, they were gone for the season," said Owens, who came on as a sub in Offaly's history-making All-Ireland final triumph in 1981 and played at midfield when they won their second title four years later.
Galway's close call in the drawn All-Ireland final this year was encouraging for outsiders as it suggested that Kilkenny could be matched twice by the same team in the one season, but Owens points to the eventual outcome.
"Close doesn't win matches. In the end, Kilkenny were All-Ireland champions again. Galway did very well but their long wait for an All-Ireland still goes on," he said.
"It's very, very hard to beat Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork twice in the same season."
Despite the All-Ireland setback, Galway appear to be very much on an upward graph, but there are concerns for counties like Offaly and Wexford, who have fallen off the top-line pace.
And then there's Laois, who have slipped so far down as to become unrecognisable from the force that regularly challenged the top powers in the 1980s and '90s.
"It's sad to see that. Laois could always put up it to anyone back then. They scored 6-10 against us (Offaly) in the Leinster semi-final in 1981 and still lost by a point," said Owens.
As for Offaly, Owens wonders if there's more in the current group than they're producing at present.
"We're hopeful every year but it hasn't been happening. Still, I think the squad is maturing so next year will be interesting.
"At this stage, it would be good progress to get back up near the main contenders. We haven't been doing that for some time. As Offaly people, we'd always be optimistic that the turn could come at any time."
The strength of the champion club is usually a good barometer as to the state of play in a county so Offaly supporters will be looking to Owens and his Kilcormac-Killoughey team as they take their season through a new frontier into the Leinster championship against Mount Leinster Rangers (Carlow) in Dr Cullen Park on Sunday afternoon.
Owens has coached four teams (three underage, plus senior hurling) to county success over the last two years and is now looking forward to the bigger test at provincial level.
A maiden Offaly title has electrified the club, and while Owens is playing down the possibility of further success, hopes are high that they will do very well in Leinster.
They are third favourites behind Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) and Oulart-The Ballagh (Wexford), thanks to a favourable draw.
If they win their game on Sunday, they will play Rathdowney-Errill (Laois) or Clonkill (Westmeath) in the semi-final.
"One step at a time. We'll be going down to Dr Cullen Park very cautiously on Sunday," said Owens.
"Mount Leinster Rangers are a very experienced side and will see this as a great chance to get into a Leinster semi-final.
"It's a good chance for us too but we'll have to be at our very best."