Dublin have a week to avoid undoing years of good work
MUNSTER for the highest competitiveness (three first-class games); Leinster for the market leaders (relentless Kilkenny); the All-Ireland qualifiers for the early culling process (two more depart today).
That's how it has been so far in the hurling championship 2012, which, as we head into July, will gather pace rapidly. By the end of the month, 10 of the 14 teams which went to the starting gate in May will have been eliminated, clearing the way for the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Since the various qualifiers and quarter-final draws can throw up a variety of pairings, it's impossible to create a clear prediction sequence, but I'll have a go anyway.
Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway and Cork are my tips to reach the All-Ireland semi-finals. We certainly haven't seen anything to suggest that Kilkenny won't be in the semi-finals for a 16th successive year. On the contrary, we have seen a whole lot to support the view that they will retain the All-Ireland title.
Having said that, it's not the foregone conclusion it might appear. Kilkenny were a class apart against Dublin last Saturday, but then the Dubs were a class below what they would have expected of themselves.
They don't need anybody to tell them that, but what's worrying from their viewpoint is the manner in which they folded so meekly once Kilkenny got a run on them.
Bear in mind that they also lost heavily to Galway in the relegation play-off, so they're now heading into the qualifiers off a league campaign where they were relegated after winning no games, followed by a Leinster semi-final thrashing by Kilkenny.
There's a lot more to Dublin than that, but they've got to prove it. And quickly too because if they lose to Clare next Saturday, Anthony Daly might well feel he has taken them as far as he can.
It must have been very frustrating for him watching players, whom he knows can do better, walk straight into traps in O'Moore Park. Kilkenny are good at setting them, but, by now, you would have expected that Dublin would not have gone back to their bad old ways, certainly not as early as they did last Saturday.
Lads who have produced some excellent performances over the last few years looked like recently manufactured hurlers who didn't quite seem to know whether to engage Kilkenny physically or test them with a running game. In the end, they did neither and looked flat from early on.
Dublin will be disappointed that after such a heavy defeat, they weren't drawn at home in the qualifiers, but, then again, the trip to Ennis offers them the perfect opportunity to make a really bold statement about their well-being. They will need to, if they are not to lose an awful lot of the momentum built up over the last few seasons.
As for Kilkenny, it was business as usual, as they did the simple things well and let the rest flow. Ultimately, though, it came down to this -- and, indeed, it so often does with Kilkenny -- they won the majority of the one-on-one battles and let hurling nature take its course after that.
You'll get plenty of lads concocting complicated theories about hurling nowadays but, science be damned, if you have enough players who win their individual battles, the rest will take care of itself. Kilkenny have proved that for a long time now.
Tipperary had a much tighter call against Cork in the Munster semi-final, but achieved their goal and will be much the better for having a second big test. The three Munster games have been very good, unlike Leinster, where there have been a few very one-sided contests.
Tipperary have had two demanding games, but came through both and will fancy themselves big time to win the Munster final. I was impressed with them last Sunday, because even after John O'Brien was sent off, they remained calm and structured and held their nerve through to the end.
Strangely for a game that Cork led for so long, there was always a sense that Tipperary would do enough to win.
But then, there's a whole lot of experience running through that team and they used it efficiently against both Limerick and Cork. As of now, they remain very much the main threat to Kilkenny.
Cork will take a lot of positives in defeat. Jimmy Barry-Murphy's second era is only just on the road, but things are coming together nicely. They're playing with a real freshness and will get better the longer this campaign goes on.
The qualifier draw has been good to them, giving them home advantage against Offaly, who are coming off a big defeat by Galway. If Cork win (and I expect them to) they will probably be playing Limerick or Wexford for a place in the quarter-finals, so it's easy to see why there's still so much optimism on Leeside.
Of all the teams who were regarded as contenders to make the last six, all except Dublin performed well. Clare, Limerick and Cork lost, but suffered no lasting damage -- indeed, all three will be upbeat about the qualifiers.
As for Dublin, they have a very important week ahead.