THE Munster hurling championship hits the high road the weekend after next with all five counties having realistic hopes of lifting the title.
One side of the draw is fairly straightforward, either Cork or Waterford will be in a final after their semi-final meeting on the last Saturday of the month.
However, on the other side, the issue won’t be as easily resolved, one from Limerick, Clare or Tipperary emerging.
The general perception would be that Cork and Waterford got the better deal in their attempt to reach the final.
In the build-up to that game, Cork will be the more fancied side and the majority of pundits will side with them.
However, you would take that with a grain of salt because there is very little between those two counties and in their most recent meeting in the national league it was Waterford who secured the points on offer.
Of course, that was seven or eight months ago and that game will have very little relevance now.
Waterford have been boosted by the return from injury of Tadgh De Burca and Conor Prunty has returned to training as well.
Cork, however, will be without Colm Spillane with a hand injury sustained in the PIHC final and his loss will be felt.
All four games in the Munster championship, Cork-Waterford, Limerick v Clare, Tipperary against Limerick or Clare and the final carry massive potential and would carry house full signs in a perfect world.
That won’t be the case, of course, and instead, the games will be played in empty stadiums which has to be some sort of a factor.
Where all teams are concerned, it will be seven, eight months since they last played competitively as a unit and that is something to mull over as well.
Before a ball is struck in anger the perception is that Tipperary and Limerick are the two leading fancies, not alone for the provincial crown but the All-Ireland as well.
Tipperary are the McCarthy Cup holders but anytime they have found themselves in that position over the past 60 years or so they came up short the following year.
Retaining All-Ireland has been a huge problem in the Premier County. When assessing any team’s chances of winning major titles the depth of their resources has to be factored in.
Squad strength has become more and more important and being able to introduce players during the course of a game that won’t unsettle the team is crucial.
Very often now it’s not the players that start a match but those who finish who make the vital difference.
Limerick are perceived to be strongest in that department and in their All-Ireland winning year of 2018 it was that squad depth that made the difference.
Three of the five Munster counties have new management teams entering this championship, Liam Cahill in Waterford, Brian Lohan in Clare and, while Kieran Kingston is well versed in Cork requirements since his previous stint, it’s a change since the last two years.
That adds a little bit extra to the intrigue in the province.
Of the other two, Liam Sheedy in Tipp and John Kiely in Limerick, both have All-Ireland titles to their credit.
Munster is a minefield every season and a lot of things have to be factored in such as injuries to key players, a key player missing a game or games through suspension and so on.
Once upon a time when a team constructed a big lead, eight, nine, 10 points, nine times out of ten it would have been sufficient.
That’s not often the case anymore and a big lead can be wiped out in minutes such is the fitness and quality of players.
Predicting who will contest the Munster final in November is extremely difficult but if Cork develop a more consistent streak, particularly within games they should get over the line against Waterford, just about.
Limerick look to have a lot more ducks in a row than Clare have and should get out on the right side of that game.
That would set up a Munster semi-final between Tipperary and Limerick, potentially the game of the year.
When the sides met back in the spring, Limerick were in a scintillating mood in the second half and ran out winners by a few points.
Munster is a far more level playing field province now than it was in the past and that’s the great beauty of it.
Gone are the days of it being a two or three counties dominated the province, all five counties are well entitled to believe they can emerge as winners.
And this year more so than ever.