Has the levelling of hurling's landscape been caused by a fall in standards?
Have your say: With Limerick and Dublin, two teams from Division 1B, now holding the two main provincial titles we ask whether there has been a seismic shift in power in the fastest field sport in the world.
'Yes' says Cliona Foley
UNDER Brian Cody's watch, Kilkenny elevated the game to a standard of skill and power never before seen. In 2008 they won an All-Ireland with a scorched-earth policy: beating Offaly by 18, Wexford by 19, Cork by nine and Waterford, in the final, by 23 points.
Five years later a combination of mileage and injuries to marquee players has seen them knocked out of Leinster, and the rest of the hurling world is queuing up to take the next haymaker at them.
They repelled Tipp and Waterford with magnificent fortitude. The Deise took them to extra-time but still couldn't beat them, even though Kilkenny shot 13 wides and scored just 1-12 in proper time, the sort of scoreline they'd usually regard as a half-time minimum.
Their goal came from a penalty and while they scored 0-10 in extra-time they also then conceded two goals, albeit one very contentious one. Yes, there have been thrills and spills and some seismic results this summer but the hurling has been far from perfect.
Kilkenny only beat Offaly by five points and conceded four goals: an unthinkable concession in previous years. Their ace card – scoring bucketloads of goals – has disappeared. They've got only two, including last week's penalty, in their last 370 minutes of hurling.
Compare that to last summer when their lowest score was 2-11, when they lost to Galway in the Leinster final. In 2012, they only once failed to find the net (0-19 in the drawn All-Ireland final) and racked up four goals in three of their previous four games.
En route to the All-Ireland, they scored 16-113 in five games. In 2011, they won it with 9-79 (four games) and they also scored 9-78 in 2010 when they lost to Tipp.
So Kilkenny have deteriorated and it is argued that 'everyone else has got better', but have they?
Tipperary had them in trouble until Lar Corbett was injured, but after that they fizzled out with a whimper. When Clare beat Wexford last weekend, they registered 20 wides and needed 2-1 from Cathal McInerney in extra-time to pull away.
Limerick's long-awaited Munster final will endure for sheer emotion but they struggled to win their own ball until Cork were reduced to 14 and the Rebels consistently shot themselves in the foot with 16 wides in a goal-less decider.
It's been an error-strewn summer, with Dublin the exception. Still, one pundit described their first drawn game with Wexford as "constipated hurling". Scoring 2-25 against Galway proved they were worthy Leinster champions, but the Tribesmen have gone backwards.
Perhaps the greatest proof that it's Kilkenny's stellar standards that have waned and not everyone else catching up is that Division 1B teams won the Munster and Leinster titles.
NO, says Colm Keys, the chasing pack have closed the gap on the elite
It's difficult to detect whether standards have risen or fallen over time in any team sport. Even in individual competition, the use of banned substances has muddied the waters, particularly in athletics and cycling. With team sport, there is not even a linear path to track a rate of standard. You must interpret what you see and make a judgment.
A team goes further one year than it does the next. For them, that's a fall in standard. But what can it accurately say about the overall standard of the code they compete in?
Teams are training harder and preparing better, as inter-county players and managers testify annually. Thus, better preparation, we must assume, leads to better standards.
In hurling, because of Brian Cody's Kilkenny, it has been slightly easier over the last decade or so to establish a gold standard.
During their four in a row, 2006-09, such was their vice-like grip, they won games before even taking the field, triumphing by an average of just over 10 points per game in the 18 they played over the period.
In the four years since, despite adding two more All-Ireland titles, and two leagues, they are much more vulnerable: three championship defeats and two draws in 19 matches.
The march of time makes a slip in standards inevitable. But to a standard that ensures a more level landscape in the sport? Of course not.
That would be unfair to the work being done in Dublin, Limerick, and Clare, not to mention Wexford, whose results at underage level and competitiveness in some of their bigger senior championship matches against Dublin and Clare, have shown more than a flickering of life.
The gap has been closed more by the pace of the chasing peloton than the erosion of Kilkenny's own powers.
Counties have been working much harder at underage level to organise the chase and are now reaping the rewards. Clare have won two of the last four All-Ireland U-21 titles, Limerick claimed an epic Munster U-21 title two years ago and, together with the success of Ardscoil Ris, that has provided impetus for their current surge.
Waterford have lost many big names but have managed to remain a Division 1 team and a championship force during a period of transition simply because the quality of players coming through is high.
Galway have struggled badly this year but can it be concluded that their standards have dropped on the basis of two games, especially with an opportunity of recovery looming?
If standards had slipped, then surely Kilkenny would still be dominating games ruthlessly because their drop would be in perfect sync with every other county.
But it's been a case of more give than take to create the most perfect hurling championship for many years. The natural instinct is to react to stronger dominance.
Earlier in this series of debates we argued that Kilkenny's dominance of hurling wasn't good for the game.
In retrospect, maybe it was. Because they have raised everyone's standards in an effort to keep pace with them.