MINEFIELD, that is now a frequently used word in relation to the Munster hurling championship which is looming larger on the horizon with every passing day.
And it’s a term that can brook very little argument.
Five counties will go into battle over a period in the months of May and June but only three will still be standing when all the issues are sorted out.
Given how level the playing field has become in the province in recent times, in stark contrast to bygone days when eight or nine times out of ten Cork and Tipp would emerge as the top two, it’s nearly impossible to predict how it will all pan out.
For two major hurling counties now there will be no autumn, they will be outsiders looking on when the battle for the McCarthy Cup intensifies.
The new provincial format that was introduced last season with resounding success decrees that two from Cork, Tipp, Limerick, Waterford and Clare will be those counties.
Last season Tipperary went in as the most fancied team in Munster, going on to challenge strongly for the All-Ireland But look what happened they weren’t hurling beyond the middle of June.
Waterford joined them as the provincial also-rans.
As a result, the two team bosses that had led them into the arena decided to step away, making way for Liam Sheedy’s return in the Premier County and a new beginning in Waterford under Padraic Fanning.
The hurling throughout the Munster campaign last season was as spectacular as it was intense and there’s every reason to believe that it will be more so this time.
So, let’s have a glance at the five competing counties and try to reach some form of a conclusion as to how it will all sort itself out.
LIMERICK: They will go into the campaign as the best team in the land, the team carrying the most momentum and with their confidence levels sky high.
More importantly, they have the deepest pool of talent, something that was one of the main contributory factors in their success last season and in them adding the national league title a few weeks ago.
Have the opening weekend off which provides them with an excellent opportunity to assess their rivals.
Similar to the other four counties, their opening game on home turf (against Cork), will be crucial.
Have to be favourites to be one of the three counties that will have an extended Summer.
TIPPERARY: When they hammered Cork in the league they looked world beaters. Yet a week later in Thurles they lost to Dublin.
That the type of inconsistency that has plagued them for too long now.
Since that defeat, they will have been working away from the limelight with Liam Sheedy and Eamon O’Shea, the latter’s return seen as a huge fillip.
But they have problems to address. There’s no established keeper or full-back.
The return of Brendan Maher is a plus but there’s a lot of miles done where the likes of Pádraic Maher, Bonnar Maher and Seamus Callanan are concerned.
Lost out last season for the top three and to do so again would be a disaster.
We won’t really know the full story about them until they arrive in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on May 12.
CLARE: Have not pushed on since 2013 and losing to Cork last July was a big setback after leading by eight points approaching half-time.
Lost by 14 points to Waterford in the league but were they really interested in the secondary competition?
Shane O’Donnell’s return is a plus and there’s a very experienced dimension to a lot of this team Peter Duggan is a very good free-taker but lacks consistency at times.
Must win their two home games. Have a hugely difficult start, going into what will be a white-hot atmosphere in Walsh Park against Waterford.
WATERFORD: Nothing went right for them last season. Had to play all their games away from home, had massive injury concerns and big decisions went against them.
Now they have two home games in Walsh Park and that’s a massive bonus. They must get off on the right foot in the first one against Clare.
There are signs too that they will be more traditional in their approach this time.
They also need Austin Gleeson to be playing at the very top end of his game.
Won’t be easy opponents for any of the other four counties but could this year be a bridge too far for veterans like ‘Brick’ Walsh and Kevin Moran.
CORK: Last but certainly no means least. Going for three-in-a-row in Munster but that’s not a priority.
Given the intensity and the competitive nature of the campaign, John Meyler would definitely settle for being one of the three counties to come through and into the All-Ireland series.
Areas of concern have to be full-back and centre-back and not since Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Ronan Curran respectively has there been the type of stability that’s required.
Strengthening the squad at the beginning of the season was Meyler’s priority and, to be fair, he left no stone unturned in that quest.
Has that been a success? The return of Stephen McDonnell, Cormac Murphy and Aidan Walsh adds an experienced dimension to the squad and options too.
Younger players like Robert Downey, Ger Millerick and Deccie Dalton have great potential but the acid test will come for them if they are sent in to perform in the hellish heat of the Munster championship arena.
Everything rests on the opening May date with Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Anything other than a win that day could be very damaging especially with trips to the Gaelic Grounds and Cusack Park to follow.
Very soon it will be time to fasten the seat belts for what is surely going to be another rollercoaster of six or seven weeks.
Prediction: Limerick, Cork and Tipp to come through.