Kilkenny are favourites but there are other contenders
In a democratic hurling championship there are a number of top contenders for glory
The TV blackout of this evening's Kilkenny-Galway replay in Tullamore offers a fairly apt metaphor for the championship season thus far.
Because it seems the more hurling we see this summer, the less we understand. Those career humanitarians otherwise known as turf accountants seem of the conviction that seven counties still have a decent shot at winning Liam MacCarthy and, for once, that seems more than idle rhetoric.
Hurling has seldom felt more democratic or less predictable at the top table. That may seem a mild contradiction given we already face a repeat of last year's Munster final and a Galway victory tonight will mean the same applies in Leinster.
Factor in the league culminating in yet another final victory for Kilkenny over Tipperary and it would seem, ostensibly at least, that form-lines are in some kind of lockdown.
Yet, the first month of championship has actually tossed out far more questions than answers. Would you consider Clare's defence of the Liam MacCarthy stillborn because of their defeat by Cork? Do you see Tipp as dead in the water after another fall to Limerick? If Waterford can lead Cork by nine points, is it wise to consider them mere road-kill in the qualifiers? Or Laois after the terror inflicted upon Galway?
The bookies still favour Kilkenny because, face it, that's where logic usually takes them.
But Cork, Clare and Dublin aren't exactly disregarded and, this week, Limerick, Tipp and Galway were all grouped together as long-shot (yet hardly neglected) 9/1 candidates.
Based on this week's prices we assess the contenders one month into the whirling dance of summer.
A gentle, barely perceptible revisionism kicking in after last Sunday's late pyrotechnics in Tullamore. Until that Galway hand reached up out of the casket, Brian Cody's men looked well down the road to restoring their old aura of invincibility. They'd sealed a league three-in-a-row whilst in largely experimental mode, given Offaly one of their worst championship beatings of modern times and now led the Tribesmen by 10 points with eight minutes remaining.
But that sudden dam-burst of goals usurped all those familiar feelings about Kilkenny, replacing them with worries about the spine of a defence that could, conceivably, have leaked eight goals in O'Connor Park. Further afield, injuries to Michael Fennelly and Richie Power complicate Cody's attacking options.
A suspicion lurks that, psychologically, Kilkenny would be severely challenged by the qualifier route, so today's replay could be critical to their fate.
Of all the big guns, Cork look to have re-stocked best through winter despite a National League challenge that, whilst delivering promotion, petered out in the quarter-finals. A sense, too, of Jimmy Barry-Murphy's team being motivated by broad early-season dismissiveness of their chances that seemed blind to the fact they were just seconds away from claiming Liam MacCarthy Cup last year.
The return of dual players Damien Cahalane and Aidan Walsh has proved a revelation, whilst Mark Ellis is just the kind of traditional, mind-the-house centre-back they could have done with to protect the full-back line in last year's All-Ireland final replay. Bill Cooper is a find in the half-forwards and, in Alan Cadogan, they have unearthed a real gem of a corner-forward. Cork's defeat of Clare was the performance of the championship so far.
The doomsayers have been out in force since June 15, casting sudden doubt on Clare's capacity to replicate last year's thrilling momentum. Hence, Clare have gone from supposed trend-setters, destined to change the very face of hurling, to a group of sated young men now struggling for form and appetite.
Davy Fitz always predicted that this could be a treacherous year for the defending champions and his concerns about key players in the middle third were borne out emphatically in the defeat to Cork. Shane O'Donnell's hamstring injury maybe forced his hand in terms of game-plan and it would seem he is unconvinced by Darach Honan's fitness. Questions have been raised too about the absence of two of last year's heroes, Patrick Kelly and Domhnall O'Donovan, from the starting 15. Yet, Clare in Ennis looks a real qualifier short straw for Wexford and they could have a big say in this championship yet.
Signs of growing maturity from the reigning Leinster champions in the manner they've dealt with really tricky away assignments against Waterford (League relegation play-off) and Wexford (provincial semi-final).
That said, the return of Danny Sutcliffe can't come soon enough for Anthony Daly who will also be hoping that Liam Rushe's match-fitness will be much improved come Leinster final day. Peter Kelly's difficulties with Conor McDonald in Wexford Park may have opened the possibility of Paul Schutte starting at No 3, while Alan McCrabbe's repatriation has been a big boon to the half-forward line where Heaven forbid anything happens to Conal Keaney. If key figures stay healthy, Dublin will be definite contenders.
At their most dangerous when feeling slighted, albeit the defending Munster champions over-egged that pie after a victory over Tipperary that didn't exactly fall into the realm of hurling earthquake.
The loss of joint-manager Donal O'Grady has been met with impressive equanimity by players now chasing the county's first back-to-back provincial titles since 1980/'81. Still, they'd be well advised to disengage from the county board's complaints about Pairc Ui Chaoimh as the venue for next month's Munster final. TJ Ryan looks to have a united bunch, but three of the selected forwards under-achieved against Tipp. They might find Cork a mite more ruthless in punishing such profligacy.
It's just a hunch, but Monday morning's penal qualifier draw could prove exactly the medicine needed to jolt a team, so heavily derided by their own people, into explosive action.
Tipperary's stock has rarely been lower in terms of perceived competitive integrity, so Eamon O'Shea should have little difficulty concentrating minds once they know the identity of opposition to be faced in Thurles next weekend. Whether it's Kilkenny or Galway, the threat of a fifth championship defeat in a row and a second successive early July eviction will surely trigger something from Tipp. They took this route to All-Ireland glory four years ago, but it requires some leap of the imagination to envisage a reprise.
Will they be back to square one if Kilkenny beat them in this evening's replay?
That is the unpalatable possibility for Anthony Cunningham as the recurring narrative of Galway's story is an inability to back up one huge performance with another. They are markedly different to the 2012 side in their willingness to scrap for an aerial advantage through tall forwards like Niall Burke, Conor Cooney, Joe Canning, Jason Flynn and Jonathan Glynn. Ronan Burke at least looks a natural full-back at No 3, but can they really afford to be heading to Semple Stadium next Saturday? The suspicion lingers that whoever loses tonight may struggle to regroup.
For every step forward taken, Waterford seem cursed to take another one back. Some promising league performances could not stave off relegation and all the optimism of May 25 and a thrilling championship draw with Cork was obliterated by heavy defeat in the replay two weeks later.
Derek McGrath looks to be making the best use of what he's got, but Waterford don't appear to have the depth of panel to change a game that turns against them. Austin Gleeson is destined for stardom and early sightings of Tadhg Burke and Colin Dunford have been promising. Home advantage could just give them an edge over Laois in this evening's qualifier, but beyond that?
One of the most improved teams around but then Liam Dunne found himself starting from a dispiritingly low base.
Perhaps his greatest achievement has been rinsing away the sense of hopelessness and inertia that followed Wexford in recent seasons. They look a properly conditioned team now and, in Conor McDonald, have found a player worth building a forward-line around. Would have relished getting a shot at Clare in Wexford Park next weekend but having to visit Ennis may prove a bridge too far.
Came through the Leinster qualifying group as winners before falling heavy to Wexford in the quarter-finals. Home advantage in the qualifiers against Offaly could briefly suspend their inevitable exit from the championship.
A huge performance against Galway confirmed them as the most improved in the championship, but could really have done with a home draw for the qualifiers. Face a daunting challenge now to survive the trip to Waterford.
No great shoots of optimism for Offaly in Wednesday's U-21 defeat by Wexford and a real sense, as articulated by Brian Carroll after the seniors' Nowlan Park hammering by Kilkenny, of the county slipping adrift of serious business. Brian Whelahan was a brave man to take the job and will need every ounce of that resolve in Ballycastle tomorrow.
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.