Cyril Farrell: Here's hoping these massive underdogs can bare their teeth
CHANGED times. Flick back to the mid-90s when the pecking order in Leinster had Offaly and Wexford as the top two, followed by Kilkenny and Dublin, while in Munster, Limerick and Clare were leading the way from Tipperary and Cork, with Waterford a fairly distant fifth.
Back then, Offaly would have been favourites to beat Kilkenny, Wexford well-fancied to beat Dublin, while Limerick-Tipperary would have been even money.
This weekend, an Offaly, Wexford and Limerick treble is priced at around 175/1. It might look attractive enough in three two-horse races, but I doubt if the bookies will have many takers.
It's a pity that the perceived gaps are so wide but amid the apparent certainty of it all has to be the hope that one of the underdogs will show their teeth.
That would invigorate the championship in its early stages without in any way distorting the true pace of the race later on. After all, Tipperary lost heavily to Cork in May 2010 but were the proud possessors of the Liam MacCarthy Cup by September.
DUBLIN v WEXFORD
It's a huge occasion for both counties, albeit for different reasons. If Dublin lose, it's difficult to see their season doing anything other than limping along to a hapless conclusion. If Wexford win, it would be their biggest success for a long time, providing a huge boost for a county that so badly needs it.
Dublin had a dismal season last year and while they re-emerged from 1B in April, it's still uncertain whether they are anything like the squad that made so much progress two seasons ago.
This evening may not provide the answer either.
Dublin beat Wexford quite easily in the Walsh Cup and league earlier this year so, in a sense, the competitive element of this game will be all about the degree to which the home side raise their game to the even higher demands of the championship.
On the plus side for Wexford, their team looks better balanced than it was during the league. Jack Guiney's return is a major plus for an attack that can trouble any defence if they get enough ball.
However, there's more to this evening than Wexford's individual – or indeed collective – talent. It's well past time they showed the famous spirit for which the county is renowned, something that hasn't always happened in recent times.
Even if they play to their maximum, they are likely to still come up short, but at least they would be heading for the qualifiers off an encouraging performance.
Offaly v KILKENNY
What's a realistic target for Offaly? A seven-to-nine-point defeat. Will they achieve it? They could. Offaly have taken some big beatings from Kilkenny in the Brian Cody era but if they can avoid a bad start, dig in on home territory and get the crowd behind them, then they could make this harder on the Cats than is generally thought.
Playing in a quarter-final is unfamiliar territory for Kilkenny and while they are coming off another league success, I suspect they will be content to do what's necessary to win this game in a measured way and move on.
Starting a championship game without Henry Shefflin is new territory for Kilkenny but they won the league (against better opposition than Offaly) without him, so it won't be a major problem. His importance to the set-up will come later in the season.
I would expect Offaly to move the ball quickly rather than go head to head with Kilkenny in the physical battles. There's no guarantee that it will keep Offaly out of trouble but it's a lot more likely to provide a decent support mechanism than standing shoulder to shoulder with the most physically powerful team in the business. Kilkenny to win – Offaly to do well enough to inject some hope for the qualifiers.
limerick v tipperary
First to team selections. John Allen is correct not to pick Shane Dowling and Kevin Downes if he has doubts about them (assuming, of course, that he has not jumped aboard the dummy team bus, much beloved of an increasing number of managers these days).
It's a pity for Limerick that the duo are not fully on their game but, if they're not, starting against Tipperary is no place for them. Anyway, 70 minutes is a long time on a hot day so no doubt they will get their chance when some others come under pressure.
Brendan Cummins' return to the Tipperary goal is no surprise. Darren Gleeson did well generally in the league (although he might have done better with one of Kilkenny's goals in the final) but Cummins is still one of the best shot-stoppers in the game and has never let Tipp down.
Tipp's subs made a big impact against Limerick last year and could again play a major part. Everything looks to be set up nicely for Tipperary, but they need to be patient.
Limerick have always liked playing Tipperary and, with home advantage plus the memory of last year's good run for three-quarters of the game to encourage them, they can make this a very competitive affair. Ultimately, though, it has to be Tipperary to make it to the final.