ALL the leading contenders for the Liam McCarthy Cup have shown their hand now.
On the evidence presented over the past two weekends, the top two would appear to be Limerick and Galway.
Over the past weekend, those two were hugely impressive, Limerick against the holders of the McCarthy Cup and Galway over the reigning Leinster champions, Wexford.
Of course, basing things on what transpires at provincial level can be misleading, because, last season, Limerick did the exact same to Tipperary in the Munster final and a few months later Tipperary were All-Ireland champions.
But, let’s be honest, in the worst conditions imaginable, Limerick were superb at Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday.
This was winter hurling with its deepest bite, but Limerick coped magnificently.
They had the scoring power, the physicality, and, above all, they had the class, the latter being very difficult to exhibit in such horrible conditions.
And something that we are getting accustomed to now: Their use of the bench yielded a handsome dividend again.
Seamus Flanagan came in, delivered 1-1, Pat Ryan and David Reidy posted two important points, while David Dempsey nearly poached a last-gasp goal.
From one game to the next, we are seeing Limerick’s squad depth and none of the other counties appear to have that strength.
They made what you’d call surprising tactical switches before the start, Kyle Hayes going to the defence and Cian Lynch into the attack.
The management are never afraid to mix things around and Tipp certainly got caught on the hop with those switches.
A nine-point defeat will not sit easily in the hurling homes of Tipperary this week, but their only focus, from the outset of the season, has been the retention of the McCarthy Cup, something that the county has not done since the 1960s.
It remains to be seen if they can replicate what they did last season: Get well beaten in Munster and subsequently regroup in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Of course, what might have worked one year may not do so the next and there’s no doubt, now, that Liam Sheedy has a lot of work on his plate this week in getting this show firmly back on the road.
Having got a bye into the qualifiers gives them that extra breathing space, but too many of their big guns did not perform on Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
You had Pádraic Maher taken off, Seamus Callanan was not an influence up-front, and the goal that John McGrath secured should not have been allowed to stand, after his brother, Noel, clearly picked it off the ground.
Tipp were a bit similar to Cork the day before, against Waterford: Too many of the perceived big guns did not perform.
Neither of the results in the two big Munster games could be considered a huge surprise, but Galway’s defeat of Wexford, and the emphatic manner of it, was.
Before the throw-in, Wexford were carrying a slight favourites’ tag, based on the fact that they were Leinster holders and had run Tipperary so close in the All-Ireland semi-final last season.
And in that same season, Galway failed to emerge from the group stage in Leinster.
But Galway are, and have always been, something of an enigma. When they are good, they are as good as any opposition, but when they are not, they can be the very opposite.
Many were surprised at the appointment of Shane O’Neill as team boss, given that he had no inter-county CV, but nobody is questioning it now.
Galway were superb in Croke Park last Saturday night and in Brian Concannon and Conor Whelan, they had two forwards playing at the very top end of their game.
Joe Canning wasn’t hugely influential from general play, but he punished Wexford indiscretion with points.
This was a chastening defeat for Davy Fitz’s men and every quality that he possesses as a successful team manager will have to be brought into play now before we see them again.
A 13-point loss was something that nobody envisaged and getting his players up from a defeat of such magnitude is a huge task.
Like Cork and Tipp in Munster, we’ll just have to wait and see how Brian Cody will cope with losing a 16-point advantage against Dublin (but Kilkenny still managed to survive).
But that has to be a concern for him, before the Leinster final.
So, from the evidence before us, the thinking has to be that Galway will end up as champions in Leinster and Limerick likewise in Munster.
In the latter case, that’s not disrespecting Waterford, but this Limerick team look to be the finished article.
They will take a lot of stopping and right now are favourites to win the All-Ireland title.