THE two biggest beasts are out to graze first. Grass may be scarce but whatever little has pushed its way through the early spring surface will be quickly devoured tonight as Tipperary and Kilkenny begin nourishing themselves for the carefully calculated build-up to the long season ahead.
Note the sequence -- Tipperary and Kilkenny. For four successive years, it was Kilkenny first, with Tipperary and others tucked in behind. Now, Tipperary are up front, heads high, chests expanded and a sprightly spring in their stride.
It's new territory for this squad, so there's no way of knowing how they will adapt.
It could be a seamless transition to the Declan Ryan era, based on the basic principle that Tipperary are living through good times, as an ultra-talented group, pushed on by emerging young talent, assert themselves in a manner which none of their predecessors achieved since the 1960s.
Last year, all the pressure was on Kilkenny as they pursued the All-Ireland five-in-a-row but this time the focus is very much on Tipperary in their attempt to retain the title for the first time since 1965.
Of course, Kilkenny will be under intense scrutiny too. Their powerful presence dominated hurling's skyline through much of the last decade, especially in the second half, so it's utterly unthinkable that they would head into a valley period, now or in the foreseeable future.
Kilkenny have become the All Blacks of hurling, setting the consistency standards to which others aspire. However, unlike the All Blacks, who have a poor record in the World Cup, Kilkenny usually thrive on the biggest days of all.
Last year's All-Ireland final was an exception, an occasion in which they were out-hurled for longer periods than at any time over the previous five years. Tipperary became the new show in town, brighter, brasher and with more variety than they had displayed at any time since 2001.
They outgunned the fastest draws in hurling, leaving Kilkenny to spend the winter checking their weapons and getting ready to work on their hand speed. Kilkenny's target for 2011 is simple: regaining the No 1 spot. Tipperary's objective is equally clear: retaining the No 1 berth.
The quality of the last two All-Ireland finals underlines the heights to which Tipperary and Kilkenny have hoisted themselves. Kilkenny were there for quite some time, while Tipperary used the example set by their neighbours to figure out a way of inching their way up. It was quite an achievement by the squad and their management team, led by Liam Sheedy.
The degree to which Tipperary's feat in dislodging Kilkenny was regarded as something extraordinary was illustrated by Sheedy's selection as the 2010 Philips Manager of the Year. Encompassing all sports -- domestic and international -- it was quite an honour. Curiously, though, Brian Cody, who had steered Kilkenny to four successive All-Ireland titles, didn't win the overall award in any of those years.
Clearly, if inexplicably, it was regarded as a bigger achievement to end Kilkenny's reign as All-Ireland champions than to build an empire which lasted for four years. By that logic, beating Tipperary this year will be deemed a greater triumph than if Ryan presides over the two-in-a-row.
Whatever the nuances in the battle for supremacy, it's beyond question that the Tipperary-Kilkenny rivalry of the last few years has enriched hurling. However, the issue does arise as to whether, in their race to the top, the pair have built a duopoly which will last for a long time.
How many of the next five All-Ireland finals will Kilkenny and Tipperary win between them? Three? Sounds too few. Four? That's closer. All five? Very possibly. Their perceived dominance at the head of the market is marked by the odds for this year's All-Ireland title, which have Kilkenny as 6/5 favourites, with Tipperary on 11/8.
Galway, despite repeated failures, are third favourites but are back at 8/1, scarcely an indication that the markets fancy them very much. They are even less impressed by Cork and Waterford, both on 16/1. Effectively, championship 2011 is regarded as a two-horse race.
Cork, Galway and Waterford will react indignantly on the basis that their status, vis-a-vis Tipperary, is not reflected in those odds or in the assertion that they aren't going to win many (if indeed any) of the next five All-Irelands. After all, it's only nine months since Cork humiliated Tipperary in the Munster championship; Galway led Tipp by two points late in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final, while Waterford always believe that, at their best, they can beat anybody.
Up to a point, all three have a fair argument, but none of them can dispute that it was Tipperary who stood up straightest and strongest to Kilkenny over the past two years.
Yes, Cork overwhelmed Tipperary last year but, in truth, there was something surreal about that game and, even as spectators left Pairc Ui Chaoimh on that late May evening, there was a feeling that if the sides met again later on it would be a completely different game.
Galway, still wracked by insecurity, had every chance of beating Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final but failed to see it through, just as they had done against Waterford a year earlier. Some regarded the double dip as unlucky, while others had a less generous view, contending that it pointed to a fundamental flaw in Galway's psychological mindset.
It could, of course, be much simpler. Maybe Galway just aren't good enough and while they revel in the tag of being voted "most likely to make the breakthrough", it hasn't been backed up by performances since 2005 when they beat Tipperary and Kilkenny before losing to Cork in the All-Ireland final.
Still, Galway remain in the hopeful category, as do Waterford and Cork, but beyond that, there are no genuine All-Ireland contenders. It's sad to see Wexford as far out as 80/1 (along with Dublin) while there won't be many takers for Limerick (33/1), Clare (40/1) or Offaly (50/1).
Sporting history has a glorious reputation for unpredictability, but it would need to be in a particularly giddy humour to interfere with the new order which has settled in hurling.
It's possible, of course, that Kilkenny or Tipperary will lose somewhere along the line in this year's championship, but it's difficult to see both of them beaten, so the chances of Liam MacCarthy wintering elsewhere are slim.
For the first time in championship history, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary won all 10 All-Ireland titles in the 2000-09 decade, and Tipp extended the run to 12 last season as Cork won in 1999.
It's a trend which is likely to continue, with Kilkenny and Tipperary the dominant forces for at least the first half of the new decade.
A broader spread of titles would be better for hurling in general, although not if it resulted from dropping standards. No danger of that with Tipperary and Kilkenny around, but whether others can join them at the high end of the market is, on current evidence, doubtful.
Tipperary v Kilkenny,
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