John Mullane: 'What do the GAA need to do to help these counties just off the pace?'
What a weekend we had with Cork turning over All-Ireland champions Limerick and throwing the championship on its head, while Tipperary cemented their place as favourites to lift Liam MacCarthy with another savage display.
The beauty about the championship is that nobody knows what's going to happen next and its unpredictability means that people will always be interested in tuning in to see the latest drama unfold.
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It's so hard to predict who will rise or fall that it's like the best part of Eurovision, when points are awarded on the scoreboard and countries move from first to last in the blink of an eye.
Any one of six or seven teams could claim the All-Ireland as opposed to recent years when it was a Kilkenny monopoly with Tipp next best.
All eyes focus on one key game in Leinster this weekend but there's a void left today and tomorrow without the cut-throat matches in Munster to complement the game in Pearse Stadium.
Salthill will be as tasty as they come with Galway and Wexford knowing that margins for error are very tight in their quest for summer survival and avoiding the dreaded early elimination.
This championship appeals to the hurling public as everything is on the line in every game. We used to have one-off games that were half cut-throat with the fallback of knowing that you have a qualifier to get up and running again, like we did en route to the 2008 All-Ireland final through the back door.
Now you have to earn every score, every free, every point, every position on the table and every final appearance before you can get near the pressure-cooker environment of Croke Park.
Some will argue that four counties will fall as early as June but in my first year with Waterford in 2001, we only played Limerick and we were gone for the rest of the summer after coming up short.
Counties have no excuses now and with four games deciding which three teams go through in each province, there's no place for sob stories. Gap weeks have been minimised to help the club calendar and those counties that are eliminated should go all out and play their club championship as early as possible when the weather is perfect for hurling.
Others may argue that it is over too soon but you only need to look at the football structures and ask whether you'd like the current hurling schedule to go back to a good game here and there with a couple of mismatches thrown in?
Most people would keep it as it is while some like Waterford might argue that they'd like to revert back to the old system while Joe McDonagh Cup counties could ask where the appeal is for them to drive forward in the muck and rain every winter.
The GAA needs to look at this and while the balance and the structures are right for now, they might not be right in 10 years' time. What do the GAA need to do to help these counties just off the pace?
More exposure for a start, games in these tiers being shown on television (on TG4 and RTé), double-headers. A trip for the winners of the McDonagh Cup to America, an All-Star selection at the end of the year picked to play the All-Ireland champions somewhere exotic.
Those type of games should be promoted on television instead of promoting the Fenway Classic in Boston or a glorified challenge match as we had with the Wild Geese Trophy in Sydney.
Give these lads a bit of hope and more of an opportunity to entice them to train as hard as the top tier to get them back up to the top level again and dreaming of competing at the top table.
This new format is perfect because there is a wide spread of teams that can conceivably go all the way and the public love the uncertainty that goes with it.
The goal now for the GAA is that we continue to have that air of excitement and try to expand the competitions with more teams from the second tier being primed to step up to the plate.
Much like the English Premier League, let's not let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Let's try to expand the championship with more teams while maintaining the cut-throat format.
Carlow have a massive part to play in how the Leinster standings could play out as last weekend's draw means that scoring differences could be crucial. We need more counties like Carlow to put their hands up and they need the continued help of Croke Park to do this.
Joe Quaid's Westmeath will be out to pick up their second win in the McDonagh Cup against Kerry today after sending Offaly further into a black hole with a 13-point hammering last weekend, which resulted in Kevin Martin being sacked as manager a couple of days later. It's 30 years since Antrim had a famous All-Ireland semi-final win over Offaly, a game I remember vividly as I was eight and watched it on a black-and-white television in my granduncle's farm in the Wicklow Gap.
I'll never forget the victorious Antrim side being clapped off by an Offaly guard of honour in Croke Park. Will we ever see that again? It's hard to believe that both will play next Saturday with even greater ramifications than 30 years ago.
While we all love the thrills and spills of the upper tier, let's not take our eye off the ball and think that everything in hurling is perfect. We need to promote counties outside of the top tier with the hope that we might have another 1989.
But for now, let's just enjoy the rest of a thrilling summer and the cut-throat hurling environment that will see many big names rise and fall as unpredictability reigns.