Martin Breheny: 'Limerick and Galway face test of credentials as early elimination threat looms'
It is a scenario nobody expected before the start of the hurling championship, but the stark reality for last year's All-Ireland finalists Limerick and Galway is that they face a real threat of being eliminated from the All-Ireland race without even getting out of their provinces.
A win for Cork over Waterford and defeat for Limerick against Clare next Sunday would make it impossible for the All-Ireland champions to finish in Munster's top three, leaving them with nothing to play for in the final game against Tipperary.
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Meanwhile, a Kilkenny win over Galway in Nowlan Park on Sunday would make it imperative that the Tribesmen beat Dublin in the final round in Parnell Park six days later.
Limerick's predicament is the more serious, as they must beat Clare to stay in contention. Defeat would leave them on two points after three games, so the maximum they could reach with a win over Tipperary is four points. Clare and Cork (provided they beat struggling Waterford), would be on four points after three games.
They play each other in Round 4, resulting in one or other moving on to six points in the event of a win or finishing on five points if the game is drawn.
Either way it would squeeze Limerick out of the top three, because if they finish on similar points to Cork or Clare, they would be eliminated on the head-to-head rule.
If Clare lose next Sunday, it won't necessarily take them to the end of the line. A win over Cork in the final game and a Limerick draw or win against Tipperary would move the Banner into third spot, nudging out the Rebels on the head-to-head rule.
If Limerick, Cork and Clare were to finish on the same number of points, scoring difference would decide placings behind Tipperary. Limerick (+13) currently lead the trio on that front, followed by Cork (0) and Clare (-12).
Limerick go into Sunday's game on the back of three successive championship defeats by Clare in 2016-17-18, with the biggest setback coming last year when they finished 11 points adrift in Ennis.
It was quite a shock to the Limerick system and while they recovered and went on to win the All-Ireland title, it shows how Clare react against their neighbours when they get their game functioning well. The sides drew in this year's league.
Clare's impressive record against Limerick will raise Banner hopes, even after the poor performance last Sunday when Tipperary won by 13 points.
That it happened shortly after Limerick had demolished Waterford explains why John Kiely's men are overwhelming favourites, but he will be acutely aware that this particular derby delights in shredding the script.
If it happens again on Sunday, Limerick's grip on the All-Ireland title will have been prised away even before they complete the Munster campaign, something that would have been unthinkable when they added the league title to their All-Ireland success in late March.
Galway have more leeway in Leinster but are in dire need of a form surge after a sluggish opening.
A six-point win over Carlow and a draw with Wexford leaves them third in the table, but they will be away in their last two games, which greatly increases the chances of being overtaken.
A defeat against Kilkenny on Sunday, and an expected win for Wexford over Carlow, would drop the Tribesmen down to fourth (on scoring difference behind Dublin) ahead of their clash in Parnell Park on Saturday week.
In those circumstances, a draw would be enough for Dublin to advance at Galway's expense.
The most worrying aspect for Micheál Donoghue is the number of players who are performing well below the levels that took them to All-Ireland glory in 2017.
Galway failed to top 1B for a third successive year, losing their final game to Waterford.
And while they beat Wexford in the league quarter-final, Waterford repeated their earlier success in the semi-final, despite being a man down for the final quarter.
Galway were no more than functional when beating Carlow in the opening series of Leinster games, winning by six points, which compares unfavourably with Kilkenny and Dublin, who beat Colm Bonnar's men by 14 and 12 points respectively.
Galway led Wexford by six points after 50 minutes, but were gradually reeled in point by point. Indeed, it took a great save from Colm Callanan in stoppage time to secure a draw.
It certainly wasn't a performance that left Galway supporters very confident about the trip to Nowlan Park.