Martin Breheny: What have we learned from the provincial championships so far?
A month into the 2013 championships, Tyrone footballers and Tipperary and Waterford hurlers are the only big shots to have departed the provincial scene, although there's every likelihood that all three will return as major influences on the destination of the All-Ireland titles.
Tyrone's exit was not a surprise as they had the toughest draw of all, paired with Donegal in Ballybofey. Waterford v Clare was always a 50-50 game, but Tipperary's defeat by Limerick last Sunday was a real upset and has raised hopes that the season may be a lot less predictable than originally thought.
More than half of the provincial programmes have now been completed and already 14 counties in football and six in hurling have been despatched to the All-Ireland qualifiers.
The provincial championships are no longer the ultimate decision-makers in shaping the All-Ireland race, but they still provide a genuine guide to the state of play across all the counties, as the last month has shown.
There were many who thought the final would be between Galway and Sligo, although quite what Galway had done to suggest they'd overturn Mayo in the first round remains a mystery.
However, few could have foreseen how Galway would melt so easily, eventually losing by 17 points. Here's a grim statistic for the Tribesmen: the combined score from last month's game and the second half of the previous championship clash in the 2011 Connacht semi-final is: Mayo 5-24 (39pts) Galway 0-12.
It's quite staggering that Mayo should out-score Galway by 27 points over 105 minutes. In scoring terms, it's an all-time stretch of superiority for Mayo against a county whose stock is now back to the levels of the first half of the 1990s, when they went eight years without a Connacht title and dropped into Division 3.
Back then, Leitrim and Roscommon were doing well, unlike nowadays when they are in Divisions 3 and 4 respectively. Sligo's defeat by London, while wrongly presented as a major shock, was an indication of a decline which suggests this particular group won't win the Connacht title that seemed well within their grasp three years ago.
In terms of genuine All-Ireland candidates, Connacht remains a one-county challenger, with Mayo further ahead of the rest than for a very long time. It's neither good for Connacht nor Mayo as the top-line standard-bearers.
Highlight: London's gritty win over Sligo.
Low point: Galway's capitulation to Mayo.
The story so far: Dublin showed that the top end of Division 1 is so far ahead of its Division 2 counterpart as to be all but invisible; Kildare nudged forward without looking especially impressive; there was considerable market volatility involving Division 2 teams.
Meath are still the only county awaiting take-off in this year's championship (they play Wicklow this evening), so it will be interesting to see if there's real substance in the Royal party.
Dublin's demolition of Westmeath was depressing in an overall context as it hinted at an ever-widening gap between Divisions 1 and 2. That was reinforced by Down's away win over Derry.
Down had finished bottom of Division 1, while Derry had won Division 2, yet James McCartan's squad were five points too good for the best of the second tier.
Back in Leinster, the overall share prize was badly hit by Laois' gutless and guileless performance against Louth (they lost by 10 points).
That was put in context by Louth's defeat at home by Wexford last Sunday, a result which must have further darkened the skies over Laois, a county that badly needs to take a close look at itself.
Blaming successive managers is easy, but it's also lazy. Laois still have a solid core of very good players who, with support, are capable of lifting the county. Unfortunately, it also has a number of technically gifted, but immature sorts who lack staying power and seem to think responsibility is for others.
Longford's demise – eight straight defeats in league and championship – is another blow to Leinster. If ever a county needed a kind draw in the qualifiers it's Longford. Offaly's boat has risen, but, still, all the indications are that the destination of the title will be decided in the Dublin-Kildare clash on June 30.
And with Dublin 1/3 favourites to win the title, it's clear how the markets view the province. Dublin's return of seven wins in the last eight championships is a Leinster record and it now looks as if it will move on to eight from nine. Great for Dublin, bad for Leinster.
Highlight: Wexford's well-crafted away win over Louth.
Low point: Westmeath's wipeout against Dublin.
If Clare hold Cork to an eight-point win tomorrow, it will be a good performance. However, it would mean that the four games so far were won by an average of over 17 points.
Of course, the fear is that Clare will lose by considerably more than eight points tomorrow. The evidence so far suggests that the gap between Cork/Kerry and the rest has rarely been wider, which is very disappointing.
Tipperary's underage advances augurs well but making real progress within a province where the control panels have been in the hands of the 'Big Two' for so long is as much a psychological issue as it is about ability.
Limerick came close to breaking the monopoly in the last decade, but didn't quite make it, which has taken its toll on their confidence.
They are still a lot stronger than they looked against Cork and could have a decent qualifier run, but, as of now, it looks as if Munster will remain in familiar hands for a very long time to come.
Low point: All three games (Kerry v Tipperary and Waterford, and Cork v Limerick), which were won by an average of over 20 points.
Was the most expensive wine served first? Quite likely. Donegal and Tyrone are the two best teams in Ulster and while their quarter-final clash did not reach anticipated levels, it was still a really genuine championship contest.
Donegal's six-point winning margin flattered them as Tyrone's kicking errors were uncharacteristically high. If that's corrected – and it probably will be – Tyrone are certain to be a major force through the qualifiers.
Derry v Down was the most entertaining game of the entire championship so far, but whether the actual quality was up to much will only be revealed in subsequent outings (Down against Donegal, Derry in the qualifiers).
Suffice to say that it was a clash between the two teams that swapped places in Divisions 1 and 2 and since the latter grouping have fared badly in the championship so far, Down's real pedigree remains under question despite the spirited recovery against Derry.
Monaghan are favourites to emerge as finalists from the other side of the draw but an 11-point win against an Antrim team that conceded 10 goals in Division 3 didn't exactly make a strong case for Monaghan's creativity rating.
Highlight: The entertainment value in Down v Derry.
Low point: Armagh's poor effort against Cavan and the bizarre aftermath when Paul Grimley apologised to the supporters.
Defending champions Galway make their entrance tomorrow, but since they lost to Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final replay, they are no longer regarded as Leinster's top dogs anyway.
The competitiveness of Wexford v Dublin, Offaly's daring four-goal raid against Kilkenny and much-improved displays by Laois have energised a championship, where, at the start, there was a tendency to fast-forward to the Kilkenny-Galway final without stopping off elsewhere.
It's still almost certain that it will still be a Kilkenny-Galway final, but there is some fun to be enjoyed along the way, including in this evening's Dublin-Wexford rematch in Parnell Park.
Whether it's a sign of a sustained Wexford revival remains to be seen, but it certainly raised spirits in the county and was welcomed outside it too.
Wexford's absence from the top table has been disappointing enough but to see them forced outside the door altogether – as has been the case in recent years – was bad for hurling.
Offaly's brave effort against Kilkenny was encouraging, too, and now the hope is that Laois will build on their progress this year by putting in a really competitive effort against Galway tomorrow. As for Dublin, this evening will tell a lot.
Highlight: Wexford's harnessing of the county's traditional flintiness which surprised Dublin last Saturday.
Low point: Carlow's 11-point defeat by Laois – the margin was surprising.
Only two games played, but, so far, so very good. Clare v Waterford was a lot more competitive than the final score suggested, while Limerick's against-the-odds win over Tipperary last Sunday energised not only the Munster championship, but the All-Ireland scene too.
Limerick removed the first layer of predictability and, in the process, opened up all sorts of possibilities in Munster and beyond.
Tipperary supporters appear quite calm after the Limerick defeat, in marked contrast to 2010 when they all but mutinied after Liam Sheedy's squad lost heavily to Cork in the first round.
Tipperary recovered to win the All-Ireland, a success that supporters are regarding as a comforting precedent which could well be repeated. Perhaps, but it should not be taken for granted.
After all, Tipp scored only two points in the final 20 minutes and one (from a free) in the final quarter last Sunday.
After that fade-out, it would be dangerously presumptuous to assume anything about their prospects of turning the season around, especially if the qualifier draws turn awkward, something which did not happen three years ago.
Cork have still to show their hand, but, with Tipp gone, will be quite confident of filling the vacuum, even if they are handicapped by a combination of injury and defections to football and rugby.
Davy Fitzgerald has Clare playing to a tight system which is working while Limerick, fifth fancies pre-championship (7/1), are now favourites (5/6).
Highlight: Limerick's first win in the Munster championship for five years last Sunday.
Low point: None so far.