IN bygone eras the month of April would be reserved for the closing stages of the national hurling league.
Championship hurling action would be further down the line in May and June.
It's all changed now and the time has arrived for the curtain to go up next Sunday on the championship season with most of the early attention being focused on the Munster senior campaign.
Many would argue that it’s too early for the hurling championship to begin and too early too for it to finish in the month of July, a time in the not-so-distant past that was reserved for provincial finals.
The point that those people are trying to get across is that there will be no major hurling games on the national stage in the months of August and September.
And maybe they are right but it is what it is now and there is the prospect of a potentially great start to the battle in Munster to be one of the three teams from the group format that will make it through to the All-Ireland series, three from Limerick, Waterford, Cork, Tipperary and Clare.
We have put them in that order because many believe that they are the ones that will move forward. Of course, there is absolutely no guarantee of such a happening and that anybody writing off Tipp and Clare will be doing so at their peril.
Limerick, on the basis of the two previous championships, are the favourites to continue in their pursuit of three MacCarthy Cups in a row. Waterford’s squad depth and because of how well they performed in the national league with the ultimate prize being secured puts them up there too.
And Cork, having been All-Ireland runners-up last season and recent national league runners-up, are also in the mix.
On both occasions those losses were comprehensive, the All-Ireland final to Limerick by 16 points and a two-goal loss in the league final that did not perhaps illustrate Waterford's dominance.
Neither Tipp or Clare showed up very well in the recent league campaign but, of course, neither did Limerick and as has often been the case in the past, league form is not always a great guide when it comes to a championship.
Of all the provincial championships, in both codes, there is no doubt that the Munster campaign in hurling is the one that stands apart from all the rest.
The atmosphere in the two openers next weekend, Waterford at home to Tipperary and Cork hosting Limerick will be electric and everything that came to pass in the national league will pale into insignificance when the ball is thrown in at both venues.
Clare will be able to sit back next weekend and have a good, hard look at the four opponents that they will be facing over the following four weeks. That can be a plus, they will be more rested than the others or, at the same time, a minus because the others will have had a big game under their belt.
The Munster SHC has always carried a charisma of its own as long as one can remember and at this observer’s stage in life, that goes back to the '60s when you could have up to 60,000 crammed into Semple stadium or the Gaelic Grounds. And for all its failings, the Old Athletic Grounds had an atmosphere all of its own on a Munster championship hurling Sunday.
Cork and Tipperary are the clear leaders in Munster’s roll call of honour with 54 and 42 titles respectively between them.
There was a time that they were head and shoulders above the rest but that’s all changed now and it’s fair to state that things have tightened up considerably and not a whole pile now separates any of the five counties, something that we should see an illustration of in the coming weeks.
The group format has energised the entire hurling championship and not one of the Munster contenders can take anything for granted anymore and that applies in Leinster too. Home advantage on the two days that you have is viewed as being crucial and at the very least one win is imperative if the campaign is to be successful.
Two home wins and you are in the driving seat for qualification, two home losses and it is likely to be an early finish to the hurling summer. That is why Cork must try to fully maximise their home advantage next Sunday against Limerick.
All the more so as we all know that’s the only game that they will play in Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the rest of the season.
Expectations have been dampened on Leeside because of the poor league final display and not one pundit will be in their corner next Sunday.
But the entire focus for Kieran Kingston has always been on this championship opener at home to the All-Ireland holders. Everything has been geared towards this day, a day that could define the whole season.
Limerick, despite their sheer dominance over the past two years, are seen by some as a bit of an unknown quantity right now because of their indifference to the league.
But we won’t be long finding out next Sunday about them and what they have been at behind closed doors on the Ennis Road. It will be something similar with Tipp in Waterford, no great shakes either in the league and now without so many generals from past glories.
This weekend the intrigue begins and we’ll all be that little bit the wiser on Sunday night.