WITH the championship draws now completed, the pathway to Croke Park for those harbouring realistic ambitions of being in Croke Park next August on All-Ireland final day has become a little clearer.
Time was when the Leinster championship was almost the sole preserve of Kilkenny and Wexford and year in, year out it was one of the two of them that lifted the Bob O’Keeffe Cup, Kilkenny far more often than not.
Offaly made the big breakthrough in 1980, defeating Kilkenny in a pulsating final on a scoreline of 2-17 to 5-10.
That victory marked the beginning of a hugely successful era in the Faithful County and since that historic day in 1980 the old trophy has wended its way there on nine different occasions.
Sadly, however, those very good days came to an end and they have not been provincial champions since 1995.
And their fall from grace has been spectacular in more recent times and they now compete in the third tier of the game, the Christy Ring Cup and were paired last week with Sligo in the opening round of that competition.
Such a pairing in a championship game of hurling years ago would have been unthinkable but it has come to pass and for the county to regain former glories the road ahead is a very long one.
Galway’s entry into the Leinster championship in 2009 has been the energiser the province required after Offaly’s demise and their first title in 2012 was marked with great joy and their subsequent build on that.
Dublin promised much when they came in from the cold in 2013 under Anthony Daly but have not capitalised on that success and if anything they seemed to have gone backwards.
Laois have competed well in some years but seem as far away as ever from being a force to really reckon with.
Wexford went from 2003 to 2019 without a Leinster title and they may find it difficult to win another one despite the influence that Davy Fitz has had in the county.
So to this year’s championship and it very much looks like being a three-horse race, Kilkenny, Galway and Wexford, unlike its Munster counterpart where you would have to say that all five contenders are in with a shout, some, obviously, more than others.
The return of Cheddar Plunkett to Laois will create a stir or two and they won’t be taken lightly by Wexford in one of the two quarter-finals.
Antrim are back in the championship as a result of winning the Joe McDonagh Cup last season and their return is a boost for the game.
The passion for the game in the glens has no boundaries and they will be given the utmost respect by the Dubs when they collide in the second quarter-final.
So, the odds are very much on a Kilkenny, Wexford semi-final on one side and Galway against Dublin in the other semi.
Kilkenny-Wexford is a rivalry through the ages and still is and with Brian Cody coming up against Davy Fitz again, that would add its own dimension.
Despite the phenomenal achievements of Cody on Noreside, there is a bit of pressure coming from some quarters and surely the time is drawing nearer when the great man will no longer be at the helm.
Winning Leinster last season was another significant achievement but the subsequent failure to Waterford in the All-Ireland semi-final after losing a substantial advantage was an equally significant loss which prompted some of the rumblings of discontent.
Has Davy Fitz taken Wexford as far as he can? Was his best chance of All-Ireland success in 2019 when they had Tipperary close to the canvas but failing to deliver the knockout blow?
And the news last week that Paudie Foley has opted out of the season’s plans has to be a big concern.
So, who would the few bob be on to contest the Leinster final? For what it’s worth, the forecast from this quarter would be on a Galway-Kilkenny final with the western team going straight through to an All-Ireland semi-final.
Limerick are the popular choice to retain the Munster title and that’s all based on last season’s spectacular form which saw them end up with every trophy that they played for.
But the beauty of both the Leinster and Munster championship is that there are no foregone conclusions and both competitions are very open.