Premier still leading pack in the hunt for greatness
The ranking list at the start of the All-Ireland hurling championship has held up pretty well as we head for the quarter-finals. The only change in the predicted six sees Limerick replace Cork, a switch probably brought about by the Phase 3 pairings which matched Limerick with Antrim, while Cork had the tougher draw against Galway. So, how do the remaining contenders rate as the season heads towards an exciting climax?
Tipperary: Hitting Cork, Clare and Waterford for an average of 4-22 is about as emphatic as it gets for Tipp, even if arguments can be raised about the quality of the opposition.
The one concern Tipp had going into this year was about how the change of management would work out. Very well, actually. Indeed, there's a lesson there for other counties from the smooth manner in which the transition was executed.
The end result is a camp which has actually increased momentum. You can't be critical of any aspect of a team that has won all their games so well.
The Big Questions: Clare ran into an early lead, but weren't good enough to build on it, but how would Tipperary cope if it happened against a better outfit? And how will they cope on a day when Lar Corbett's (right) goals don't flow?
There was a lot of nonsense spoken and written after the National League final defeat by Dublin when the reality was that, while Kilkenny played poorly, they had reached the final, whereas several other championship hotshots hadn't. The return of Henry Shefflin (left), Tommy Walsh, Michael Fennelly and Richie Power -- who is far more important to the set-up than he gets credit for -- was always going to make them a completely different outfit.
They won Leinster almost as impressively as Tipperary won Munster and, as history shows, they know exactly how to peak for August and, usually, September too. There's still very little -- if indeed anything -- between themselves and Tipperary.
The Big Questions: How secure is the full-back line? People criticised the Dublin full-forward line after the Leinster final, but they got very little good ball. When the supply lines are better, will Kilkenny's back three be exposed?
Ranked third in the pre-championship betting, they drifted alarmingly, but are back in the saddle after a crashing fall against Dublin. What's more, they are well-placed to make a real charge from now on as their confidence levels are rising and, as we all know, the raw talent is there.
Also, the team is better set up now than it was for the game with Dublin and are playing with a level of authority which, at its peak, can be matched only by Tipperary and Kilkenny. Reaching an All-Ireland semi-final should be the minimum requirement for Galway every year, but they haven't been there for six seasons, so they simply have to end that sequence against Waterford.
The Big Questions: Can they develop real consistency? Every county wants to avoid them in case they hit one of those days when they are virtually unstoppable, but they don't arrive often enough. Have they corrected that fatal flaw?
Reaching the semi-finals would take Dublin into real bonus territory in what has been a great season anyway at all levels. They will have been disappointed with the Leinster final, not so much that they lost to Kilkenny, but with the manner of their defeat. They were never allowed to impose themselves and now know what it's like to have every aspect of their game analysed in detail. It's something they will have to get used to even more if they are to advance.
It says a lot about their progress that Dublin are now regarded as well ahead of Offaly, Wexford and Laois in Leinster, counties who would have always fancied themselves against Dublin in the past.
The Big Questions: Have they got enough craft to cope under the constant pressure they are going to encounter from here on? And will they be able to pick from a full hand which is vital?
They are ahead of Waterford for three reasons. One, their Munster semi-final clash with Waterford was so close as to be inconclusive. Two, Waterford are recovering from a thrashing, whereas Limerick are heading for the quarter-finals off two wins. Three, they are delighted that the championship format paired them with Dublin rather than Galway.
It has been a good year for Limerick, having returned to the real race as opposed to being a warm-up act last season. There's a discernible method to what they're doing and they are clearly on an upward graph.
The Big Questions? How will Limerick cope with Dublin's in-your-face style? Dublin will be a whole lot more powerful than Wexford or Antrim so can Limerick respond?
Waterford have climbed out of deep holes before, so they should not be written off. It's easy to dump on the players and, more especially, on Davy Fitzgerald (left) after last Sunday's big defeat, but it ignores the reality that the county has been punching above its weight for quite some time. Having said that, they still shouldn't lose a Munster final by seven goals. They never got up to the pitch of the game last Sunday and once Tipperary got their free-flowing game going, Waterford were blitzed. Still, they are a whole lot better than that and have a chance to prove it tomorrow week.
The Big Questions: How psychologically damaged are they? Waterford are heading for the quarter-final off a severe thrashing by Tipperary whereas Galway had two big wins. How will Waterford cope with the confidence deficit that difference creates?