THE month of April is very much the calm before the storm on the inter-county landscape.
Intercounty managers will be hoping that their players will come through the club games that they will participate in over the coming weeks unscathed before they intensify their preparations for the minefield that the provincial championships have now become in both Munster and Leinster.
Last season’s Munster SHC has whetted the appetite for what may lie ahead in May and June when five into three just won’t go and by the middle of June four leading hurling counties will have had their year terminated.
Last season it was Tipperary and Waterford in Munster and Dublin and Offaly in Leinster.
Offaly, of course, are now plying their trade in the Joe McDonagh Cup and more’s the pity for a county that provided some memorable moments in the 80 and ‘90s.
The Leinster championship for this season took on a different complexion in the past few weeks with the news from Galway that Joe Canning and Fintan Burke would miss the entire provincial campaign because of long term injuries they had sustained, Canning in the national league semi-final loss to Waterford.
Prior to that the expectation was that last season’s All-Ireland runners-up, Kilkenny and Wexford would be the three teams to emerge from the province again.
But that’s no foregone conclusion now, primarily because of Canning’s absence for Galway.
Has any player had a greater influence on an inter-county team in recent times than he has had for Galway?
On his day he is still the country’s best forward and Galway are going to miss him considerably for the duration of the Leinster championship.
Enter Dublin, they lost out last season but not before putting in strong displays against Kilkenny, Wexford and Galway.
In fact, they lost by just two points to both Kilkenny and Wexford and a point to Galway.
So, they could be titled the unluckiest team in the entire championship last season.
They have had a decent enough league campaign under new boss Mattie Kenny and Galway, without Canning, will not relish the Summer journey to Parnell Park.
So, it’s no foregone conclusion that the three who came out last season will do so again and the Dubs are going to have a major say in the eventual outcome.
The Munster championship takes on a different complexion, too, because this time Waterford will get to play two games in Walsh Park, something that wasn’t the case last time.
Before the league final they had a positive enough campaign, losing just once to Dublin but their final performance against Limerick was very meek and they could, quite easily, have lost by a lot more.
But history has shown that Walsh Park can be an immensely difficult venue for any opposition on a championship day and neither Clare or Limerick will fancy the trip there.
Ask any of the five team bosses in Munster and they’ll tell you straight off that the first game of the campaign will be of paramount importance.
In the opening games on May 12, Cork will play Tipp in Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Waterford will host Clare.
The managers will tell you too that winning your home games is equally important.
A Cork loss to Tipperary would immediately put them in all sorts of difficulties and it would mean that they would have to win one of their two away games against Limerick and Clare, no easy task in both instances.
Cork play Limerick a week after facing Tipp in the Gaelic Grounds and they will have a very competitive game under their belt whilst it will be Limerick’s first outing since the league final.
A Cork win over Tipp and they’d be in buoyant mood going in against the country’s best team.
In both provinces, being one of the top three is the only imperative and thoughts of being crowned provincial champions will be of secondary importance.
That will take care of itself when the time comes but before that can be entertained there are four Munster finals to be played first en-route to the final itself.
In Leinster you could safely say that Galway, Kilkenny, Wexford and Dublin will win their games against Carlow but there is no such guarantee about any game in Munster.
In fact, in any of the 20 games that will be played in the Munster championship could you safely say that one team will beat the other.
Last season’s Munster championship reached huge heights, every game had something to offer, even the final game between Cork and Waterford when the latter had only pride to play for.
Most of the county team panels are now in place for the demands of the Summer months and if you were to base your predictions on squad depth you would have to say that Limerick are in the best place.
And it’s likely to boil down to that, the county that has the better options off the bench when push comes to shove in the final quarter or so.
That was Limerick’s greatest strength last season, springing the likes of Shane Dowling and Peter Casey from the bench.
In fact, from what we have seen so far throughout the league they appear even stronger this time.
Will the others be able to match them? It won’t be that long now before we’ll find out.