Dublin ready to take their biggest step
Anthony Daly's men targeting Limerick scalp to confirm status as genuine title contenders
Anthony Daly draws mirth from the commonly peddled view that Dublin hurlers' next game always seems to be their biggest test yet.
When they won the Walsh Cup against Kilkenny, it was only the Walsh Cup, the league was far more significant. When they beat All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the league for the second successive year, well it was only the league.
And they had a trip to Offaly to come which they didn't handle very well in similar circumstances 12 months earlier. So that became their next 'biggest test.' Which of course they passed.
And on it went. A draw with Kilkenny in the league? There was a still a journey to Pairc Ui Chaoimh to come where they had to seal the deal for a league final. The league final itself? Grand, but the real challenge remained the championship and reaching another Leinster final.
They achieved it all. And yet Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick really is taking shape as arguably their biggest test of all. Like a mirage in the desert, acceptance as a genuine top team doesn't seem to get closer with each giant step taken.
This has been a source of amusement to Daly for so much of the season.
In many respects it is, however, just as important as winning a league final that they qualify for an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in 50 years.
To do so they must beat the same county that they lost to at the same stage of the championship two years ago, at the same venue. As a benchmark for tangible progress, it doesn't get any more accurate than that.
Whatever happens, a league victory and championship wins over Offaly and Galway, followed by a creditable performance against a really driven Kilkenny in the Leinster final, on top of the provincial minor and U-21 double, amounts to a great season for Dublin.
But a great season has the potential to become a phenomenal one.
However, Dublin captain John McCaffrey admitted yesterday that there will be more than a tinge of failure attached if the end-of-year audit shows that for the second time in three years, Limerick trumped them to make the last four. There's a lot at stake.
"We've got better and better, we've undoubtedly made progress and we are much better equipped than we were when we went to Thurles two years ago," said McCaffrey.
"I would consider it a failure of a year if we don't make the All-Ireland semi-finals. We have set ourselves high standards. These are the games we want to be playing and must be ambitious enough to win."
Revenge can be a powerful tool but McCaffrey acknowledges that Limerick have equal reason to want more from their season after their travails in 2010.
"Losing to them will provide a bit of motivation but I would say Limerick have improved since 2009 as well. They have made progress this year when you look at their results. So it's a massive game for both teams."
Dublin were able to quickly put the disappointment of losing to Kilkenny behind them and refocus on their next 'biggest game of the season'.
"Every game has been important to us this year. The Leinster final was a disappointment obviously but a couple of days sorts that out and you move on," he said.
For Dublin, an All-Ireland semi-final appearance is a key goal that they would have set at the start of the season. Achieving it would cement everything they've done so far.
Leaving nothing to chance, they had a two-hour spin out in Semple Stadium on Saturday where they played a match and familiarised themselves with the territory.
Thurles is not a venue that has been on their radar very much and when they played there two years ago, there was a feeling that they were somewhat unnerved by the place. Last weekend's exercise should help in that regard.
"It's a great stadium. You can't but notice the sign that says 'home of the legends' as you pass in," McCaffrey went on.
"We haven't played there since that last Limerick game but I feel we'll be better able to deal with what's in front of us than we were two years ago. We had played in the county's first Leinster final for 19 years and it was new to us.
"We've matured as individuals and as a team. We gave up a six-point lead that day. We thought we were ready but really we weren't. The victories in the league and the final itself have given us greater self-confidence."
Dublin will welcome back Ryan O'Dwyer, who was suspended for the Leinster final, and will have David Treacy available to them after he missed the Kilkenny game with a hamstring injury. The extra three weeks should have brought Joey Boland's game on considerably after his absence from the Offaly and Galway games through injury.
Their bona fides as a top-level team have been consistently challenged. Each step has demanded another one to be taken.
But Sunday offers them a view of the promised land beyond.