Cyril Farrell: 'Cork and Dublin haven't gone away you know. From now on everyone has to get it right or it's over'
They haven't gone away you know. With the focus locked firmly on the Munster and Leinster finals last weekend, it would have been easy to forget that two other heavyweights were sitting outside the rings, eyeing up future opponents.
Okay, so Cork and Dublin have to win their preliminary quarter-finals tomorrow to remain in All-Ireland contention, but with all due respects to Westmeath and Laois, they are most unlikely to land a knock-out punch.
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There's a natural tendency to think of third-placed finishers in the Munster and Leinster round robin series as slightly inferior to the finalists, but it's not accurate.
Didn't Limerick finish third in Munster last year? And we all know what happened after that. Cork and Dublin missed out on provincial final places on scoring difference only this year, so their All-Ireland credentials are as valid as the rest of the contenders.
Tomorrow's games give them the last chance to fine-tune ahead of the quarter-finals against Kilkenny and Tipperary respectively next Sunday.
For Cork, the issue is all about getting the defence right, a problem that has carried over from last year. Their strike force is first class, with Patrick Horgan, Alan Cadogan, and Seamus Harnedy leading the way.
Daniel Kearney, Luke Meade, Conor Lehane, Aidan Walsh and Shane Kingston are going well too, so John Meyler will be quite happy with Cork's scoring capability, especially in the wide open spaces of Croke Park, which will definitely suit them.
Things aren't as stable at the other end, where there has been a fair amount of chopping and changing. It's as if Meyler and his selectors have nine or ten defenders, but can't quite figure out who are the top six.
That's because consistency has been absent among individuals which, in turn, upsets the overall balance.
It can be very frustrating when performance levels fluctuate from game to game as it creates uncertainty among players and management. Meyler gets one more chance tomorrow before making the final call on the six who will front Anthony Nash against Kilkenny tomorrow week.
The time for switching is over. It's knock-out from now on, so everyone has to get it right or it's all over.
One area of Cork's defensive play that's suspect is their physicality. I'm not talking of lowering the blades on opposition, but they tend to be a little 'nicer' than most of the other teams.
Let's put it this way - forwards would prefer coming up against Cork than Limerick, Wexford or Kilkenny. A bit more steel wouldn't go amiss. In fact, it's necessary.
Cork are third favourites behind Limerick and Tipperary for the All-Ireland and, if they get the little things right, will feel they have every chance of landing the title. After all, they led Limerick by six points late in the All-Ireland semi-final last year, and while they were pegged back before losing in extra-time, a spate of injuries may have cost them a place in the final. Since then they have beaten Limerick in League and Championship.
Of the two preliminary quarter-finals, Dublin face the trickier test. They will beat Laois, but it may take longer to sort out than people think. Laois are on a high after their Joe McDonagh Cup win and while this is a big step up, they will fancy it.
Over the years, Laois would always feel they had a chance against Dublin and while it may not appear all that relevant now, perceptions can last through decades.
Laois have some very fine hurlers, including goalkeeper Enda Rowland who is one of the best in the business. Mark Kavanagh, Aaron Dunphy and Ross King, who scored 2-10 between them from play against Westmeath last Sunday, will test Dublin at the other end.
Eddie Brennan has done an excellent job with Laois. There were people who said he was mad to take the job in the first place in a county where everyone hadn't been pulling in the same direction all the time. He saw it differently and his stature as a former Kilkenny great was always going to persuade players who might have been wavering on whether or not to commit to the county cause. Once he got everyone on board, Laois were primed to win the Joe McDonagh Cup, which they duly did.
Mattie Kenny will be using tomorrow's game to re-set for the All-Ireland bid after getting through in Leinster. Dublin made a big statement against Galway, even if the result wasn't as much of a surprise as some people thought.
Dublin were unlucky in last year's championship, losing to Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway narrowly. Their one-point defeat by Galway was particularly indicative of their attitude.
A win couldn't save them from elimination, but they still hurled as if their lives depended on it. It would have been easy to just go through the motions, but instead they showed real commitment and fighting spirit, which said a lot about their character.
With a full deck to choose from this year, they were always going to be formidable. Kenny was a natural fit as Pat Gilroy's successor and they are now very much where they want to be.