WHILE Kilkenny and Tipperary have reinforced their credentials as hurling superpowers by reaching the national hurling league final, the other member of the so-called 'Big 3' signed off the spring circuit with more questions than answers surrounding their prospects of ending a 25-year long All-Ireland famine.
A seven-point defeat by Kilkenny in Thurles on Sunday flattered Galway, who faded so alarmingly after an enterprising start that the contest was settled with 20 minutes remaining.
It was a woefully inept performance by last year's All-Ireland runners-up, who have eight weeks to take the necessary corrective action before they begin the defence of their Leinster title.
"It would have been nice to win but we're not going home morbidly depressed because we lost it. We're focused very much on the championship," said selector Tom Helebert after Sunday's defeat.
So too are Kilkenny and Tipperary but they still succeeded in booking a place in the league final, whereas Galway came up well short.
It raises 10 key questions they must find answers for before heading for the championship highway in mid-June against the survivors from the Westmeath/Antrim/Laois/Carlow/London play-offs.
1 Why were Galway so dismally poor against their two big rivals, Kilkenny and Tipperary, who beat them by a combined total of 18 points?
Kilkenny/Tipperary 5-46 Galway 2-37 – that's the combined total from Galway's clashes with their main rivals. Also, Tipperary outscored them by 2-10 to 0-6 in the first 22 minutes, while Kilkenny beat them 1-19 to 0-7 between the eighth and 48th minutes last Sunday. Galway's inability to limit the damage during their bad spells is a serious flaw.
2 Can Galway win games if they fall behind?
Not this year. Their league wins over Kilkenny (February 24) and Waterford came after they led at half-time. They trailed Tipperary and Kilkenny (last Sunday) at half-time and were well beaten in both games; Cork led them by a point at the break after playing with the wind in a game that finished level.
Galway's best performances in last year's championship were in games where they led comfortably at half-time, notably against Kilkenny and Offaly in the Leinster campaign.
They were level with Cork at the break in the All-Ireland semi-final and went on to win by five points; they drew after leading Kilkenny by five points at half-time in the first All-Ireland final clash; they trailed Kilkenny by four points in the replay and lost by 11 points.
There's now a growing view among opposition that if they are ahead of Galway by half-time, they will win.
Conversely, are Galway in danger of being conditioned to lose if they trail at half-time?
3 What are Galway missing by not being in the league final?
The answer comes in a reply from Kilkenny defender Paul Murphy on what Sunday week's clash with Tipperary means to them.
"It will be great preparation for the championship. You can't ask for better than games against Galway and Tipperary," he said.
Kilkenny want to win every game and every competition, so why should it be different for anybody else? Besides, Galway are still trying to settle on their best team, a process that would have been helped by a league final outing.
4 Why so little spirit when Galway fell well behind against Kilkenny last Sunday?
Who knows? With a few exceptions, they looked as if they couldn't wait for the game to be over once it started to drift away from them. Don't be fooled by how Galway pared three points off the deficit in the final 15 minutes.
By then, Kilkenny had relaxed, secure in the knowledge that their day's work was done. Galway's lack of drive after a good start was not encouraging for their supporters.
5 What impact will the big defeats by Kilkenny and Tipperary have on Galway?
Kilkenny beat Galway by 25 points in last year's league in April but it was all very different three months later when Galway won the Leinster final by 10 points. On that basis, Galway can argue that last Sunday's setback will be irrelevant in the championship.
However, the reality is that Galway have lost three of their last seven games (including last year's All-Ireland final replay) by margins of 11 (twice) and seven points.
6 What did Galway learn from the league?
Progress made in last year's championship increased, rather than reduced, the pressure. The response was not what supporters would have expected.
7 Did Galway bring through any fresh talent in the league?
No. There's no new name aboard who made a big impact. In fairness, it's a young squad with many trying to force their way through to the starting 15.
8 Have they solved areas of concern?
No. They seem to have decided that long-serving Tony Og Regan won't be the centre-back, having started Joseph Cooney at No 6 for three games before opting for David Collins, who has played in a variety of defensive positions throughout his career. As of now, No 6 remains largely unsecured.
Colm Callanan gave a superb performance in goal last Sunday; Fergal Flannery got two runs earlier on in the league; James Skehill is back from injury and was one of the subs against Kilkenny. Who will be No 1 for the championship? Midfield and centre-forward are by no means settled either, while Kevin Hynes struggled at full-back on Sunday.
In fairness to him, Kilkenny's outfield men were put under little pressure as they picked out Richie Hogan in front of the full-back. That calls for a look at Galway's half-backs/midfield/half-forwards.
9 Where to play Joe Canning?
He made no impression from open play last Sunday but, on his day, is Galway's best finisher, especially when it comes to goalscoring. That's why the opposition love to see him out in the half-forward/midfield area, positions he occupies on an increasingly frequent basis.
There's also the question of how to ensure that he gets on the ball more often. Last Sunday's game largely passed him by, as did the second half of last year's drawn All-Ireland final.
10 Is there a danger of post All-Ireland final decline?
History shows that in 1991, 1994, 2002 and 2006, years after Galway had lost All-Ireland finals, they ran poor championship campaigns.
There's no way of knowing if that will happen again, but their erratic league form has sent out some distress signals.