Galway in pole position while Cork and Limerick should serve up cracker
After the champagne of the Super8s quarter-final rounds last weekend, the All-Ireland Hurling Championship zooms into focus with remarkable clarity.
For the first time ever, a pair of All-Ireland semi-finals not involving replays will be played on the same weekend. It will be the same for football a fortnight later as the new formats take hold.
All-Ireland holders Galway are first out when they face Clare tonight in Croke Park (5pm).
Micheál O'Donoghue's side have got themselves steady for their defence of the All-Ireland title.
Normally by now, the effects of a winter spent fattening new champions on the round of All-Star Awards night, the All-Star trip to Singapore in December, as well as the numerous club events that were attended with Liam MacCarthy back in the county, will have displayed some evidence.
In their first game they were almost caught cold by a spiky Antrim team, but since then they have lost just twice all year - by two points to Limerick on March 11 and a league quarter-final to Wexford.
Winter hurling. The stuff that All-Ireland champions have no business worrying about.
"I don't want to be putting pressure on them, but it is Galway's All-Ireland to lose," said Damian 'Chunky' Hayes, their former corner-forward, during the week, putting serious pressure on them in doing so.
"It's not just me saying it, Galway are genuinely the best team out there, but they need to be very careful of this Clare team.
"Clare will be really up for this game, but I still think Galway are the best team in the Championship, and I think it's Galway's All-Ireland to lose."
For Clare, it's the first time back in Croke Park since that magical All-Ireland final replay of 2013 when Shane O'Donnell netted a hat-trick of goals as they beat Cork.
Hard to believe really, and as well as Davy Fitzgerald, a good chunk of that team is now gone, worryingly some through long-term injury. Donal Moloney and Gerry O'Connor are now managing the side and they lost to Cork twice in Munster - once in the first round of the round robin and then in the Munster final, before making it to this stage by beating old friend Davy Fitz's Wexford in the quarter-final.
The game tomorrow between Cork and Limerick threatens to be the match of the year. When they met in Pairc Uí Chaoimh on June 2, they played a game that defied logic and produced hurling like you wouldn't have thought possible.
With Cork scoring 1-25 to Limerick's 0-28, the 54 scores make it the highest-scoring game of the season so far.
That game propelled Cork on to win the Munster Championship. Limerick, meanwhile, had a curious non-performance in the round robin match against Clare, losing by 11 points and, with it, their chance to have met Cork again in the Munster final.
In the quarter-final against Kilkenny a fortnight ago, no fewer than nine of the Limerick starting team had played on the 2017 All-Ireland Under-21 winning team. Manager John Kiely has promoted youth at every opportunity and there is a sense that if it doesn't happen for Limerick this year, then it is only a matter of time before they gain their first All-Ireland since 1973.
The experience of drawing a game with Cork, in that stadium and under that pressure, should have the effect of hot-housing their young talent.
Cork have been a living embodiment of their line that they are like mushrooms, in that they can come good overnight.
During the league they lost four games and dropped out of Division 1A.
In the Munster round robin they were not all that convincing either, although they had an unbeaten record, there were two draws.
The style was turned on for the Munster final win over Clare, but there is still the suspicion they are over-reliant on the dead-ball talents of Patrick Horgan.
Sean O'Donoghue, Eoin Cadogan and Daniel Kearney have all come into a side that expect to be in the final come August 19.