WHAT a weekend of hurling awaits, with eight counties chasing six places in the All-Ireland series.
Nothing is decided yet in either Munster or Leinster, although it would take something dramatic to deny Tipperary a place in the Munster final, the Premier County being the only unbeaten team in the country going into the final weekend of the round-robin format.
Limerick and Cork would be the favourites to accompany Tipp into the All-Ireland series, but nothing is definite yet.
In Leinster, it is even more intriguing, with only Carlow out of the equation. Everything will be decided there on Saturday night, whereas the final count in Munster won’t take place until the following day.
Of course, it is exactly what the provincial councils would have wanted: no dead rubbers on the final day.
Probably the best game of the series, thus far, in both provinces, was last Sunday, between Kilkenny and Galway in Nowlan Park.
This game, particularly in the second half, had nearly everything: three red cards, 11 yellow cards, and controversy at the death over the added time. The game made compelling viewing, especially, again, in the second half, when Galway finally got their season going, after some below-par performances against Carlow and Wexford.
The absence of Joe Canning was the main cause of their slackness and they were under the cosh going into Nowlan Park last Sunday.
But they came good when it was most needed, holding out for a point victory, after being eight points to the good at one juncture in the second half.
The hits were hard and often during that closing 35 minutes and the number of cards that were issued by Nemo ref Colm Lyons illustrated that.
But were some of them really justified, especially the ones that led to the sending-offs of Kilkenny’s Paul Murphy and Ger Aylward?
There could be no argument about the dismissal of Galway’s John Hanbury, for a high tackle.
In his column in Monday’s Irish Examiner, former all-Ireland final referee, Brian Gavin, questioned the amount of time that was added on.
The final whistle certainly came very quickly after the time allotted had expired and there had been a delay during the extra four minutes, for a booking.
The time added on in games remains a very grey area. Too often, at local level, we have seen games going well beyond the time allotted, four minutes ending up as six.
In some instances, it is justified, but in other cases, it is not.
Galway prevailed in Nowlan Park and made a huge statement, one that surely marks them out as serious All-Ireland contenders again.
And Canning will be back the deeper they go into the championship.
Cathal Mannion was absolutely superb last Sunday, scoring seven points from play, while Conor Whelan’s prowess was exhibited again.
Dublin will make them earn anything that they get in Parnell Park on Saturday night, but one would still fancy them to come through and go into the Leinster final.
All eyes on Saturday night, however, will be on Wexford Park, for Kilkenny’s visit.
Suddenly, the Cats find themselves under a bit of pressure, after winning their opening two games.
If they lose to Wexford and Dublin were to defeat Galway, then it’s year over for Brian Cody’s men.
Cody was not too happy after the loss to Galway and without being critical of the referee, he got his point across.
The race for the big prize in August, in Croke Park, is definitely hotting up now and you could say that the cream is starting to come to the top.
Right now, you would be thinking that Tipperary, Limerick, Cork, and Galway are the top four and the leading contenders for the McCarthy Cup. Limerick’s annihilation of Clare was something else, Tipp have really been threshing thus far, while Cork are motoring along nicely and, in the win over Limerick, we saw what they are capable of.
Galway’s first championship win by any county in Nowlan Park in 70 years will give them great confidence going forward.
Whilst the competitive fare in Munster has been mundane enough up to now, and Leinster didn’t exactly boil over until last Sunday, one has a feeling that when the big questions will really come, the whole thing will sizzle again, just as it did in 2018.