Kilkenny's superior firepower to thwart full-strength Dubs
BRIAN Cody dealing from a weakened hand... Anthony Daly finally able to call on a full squad... Jimmy Barry-Murphy dropping some very big names... Declan Ryan using the scare from the Limerick game to good effect...
This is the weekend when the hurling championship gathers serious momentum with four of the top five in the All-Ireland betting (third-placed Galway are already through to the Leinster final) in action in provincial semi-finals.
And while the two losers will still be very much involved in the All-Ireland race, there's no doubt that the direct route remains the priority for the big guns.
It's interesting to look at the Kilkenny-Dublin and Cork-Tipperary games from the managers' perspective, because, ultimately, an awful lot depends on how they set up their teams. Cody has been doing it so successfully for so long in Kilkenny that people might think it comes as second nature, but nothing is ever that simple.
He has always had a strong hand to play with, but not even Kilkenny can afford to lose players of the calibre of Michael Fennelly and Michael Rice without feeling some ill-effects. Their absence certainly lessens the physical force Kilkenny will bring to the middle third, something which Dublin will see as possible gain area.
I'm not so sure. Cillian Buckley and Paddy Hogan are different types of players to Fennelly and Rice, so expect them to move the ball quickly, whereas Fennelly, in particular, likes nothing better than taking the ball in his big paw and galloping forward.
A lot has been made about how O'Moore Park will be the scene of a massive physical collision, where helmets are even advisable for spectators! I suspect this is being over-played. You have some pretty hardy boyos on both sides, but if you look at the Kilkenny attack, it's all about movement and inter-changeability.
They are experts at making space and have such an innate sense of where each other will be at any given time that physical force won't stop them.
Defenders can be as strong and forceful as they like, but if the point of play is being switched all the time, it's very difficult to cope with it.
Henry Shefflin's return after a long-term injury is a massive boost to Kilkenny; so too is Richie Power's availability. Shefflin hasn't played since last year's All-Ireland final, but we're talking about possibly the greatest hurler of all time, so even if he's not quite at peak match-fitness, he still has enough magic in his wrists and cuteness in his brain to be a major presence.
While Cody has to plan without Fennelly and Rice, Daly is in the unusual position (for Dublin) of having a full hand to deal from. It's great to see that, as Dublin have been badly hit by injuries in recent seasons, which, inevitably, raised the question of how they would have fared if everybody was available.
Ever since the championship draws were made last October, Dublin were gearing everything towards today. They would have liked to arrive here as a Division 1A team, but hadn't much luck in the spring games and eventually made the drop. It's of no consequence now and, besides, they didn't have everyone to pick from earlier on.
Many Dublin supporters will want Daly to set his team up in dog-fight mode. Tear into Kilkenny, try and win the physical battle and take it from there.
Of course, Dublin will need to stand strong and hard, but they've got to ensure that it's not at the expense of surrendering possession. It's all very fine being expert at tackling, blocking, hooking, etc, but the more you have to do that, the more it shows how much possession the opposition have.
Dublin have powerful attacking ball-carriers in Conal Keaney, Liam Rushe and Ryan O'Dwyer, so they must get the ball to that trio and hope that they make progress against the Kilkenny defence. I would expect that the Dublin attack will have some very good moments, but not as many as their Kilkenny counterparts.
After all, if Kilkenny can afford to omit Matthew Ruth, who scored a total of 5-9 in the league, it shows how well the forwards are going in training.
Kilkenny to win, but Dublin to do enough to enable them to re-launch their championship bid in a positive frame of mind.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy certainly took the lessons of the league final defeat to heart, making changes in every line on the Cork team. In many ways, he has dismantled the team that took Cork to the league final, but obviously he felt that major surgery was required after the collapse against Kilkenny.
Omitting such big names as John Gardiner and Sean Og O hAilpin from the starting line-up will surprise some people on the basis that they survived right through the league, but obviously JBM felt it was time to act.
They can still play a part from the bench, but their omission -- plus the various others changes on the team -- shows that JBM is as prepared now to make the hard calls as he was back in 1999 when he sent a new-look team into the championship. They clicked immediately and a few months later, Cork were All-Ireland champions.
That's unlikely to happen this year, but he has taken a broadly similar line, albeit under less pressure because (a) it's the first season of his second term and (b) there's a second chance for tomorrow's losers.
Declan Ryan has also dropped a famous name in Eoin Kelly, but he, too, is likely to remain an important figure for the year, whether as an impact sub or a starter later on down the line.
The return of 'Bonner' Maher, Shane McGrath and Conor O'Brien is a big plus for Tipperary, as all three did well when coming on as subs against Limerick. And when you look at the strength of the subs' bench, it shows how well off Tipp really are.
As for rumours of dis-unity in the camp, there wasn't much sign of it when they pulled together in total harmony to rein in Limerick's seven-point lead last month.
Tipp to win.