SINCE the commencement of the year, Limerick and Clare have found themselves pitted against each other three times, once in the national league and twice in the Munster championship.
In regulation time in those three games, they could not be separated, a draw in the league encounter, a draw at the group stage of the Munster campaign and in last Sunday’s epic final they had to go into extra time before Limerick finally found a resolution.
Now, on the evidence that both sides presented in Thurles, there is every chance that they might not be done with each other yet and there’s a strong possibility that on All-Ireland final Sunday in July they could be in opposition again.
The hurling year is most certainly taking shape now and taking everything into account, Limerick and the Banner county are the two best teams in the country at this point in time.
That’s not saying that one or both of them won’t be beaten before the final but the public perception now seems to be that they are the favourites to collide again on the biggest day.
Cork, Kilkenny, Galway and Wexford will have a lot to say about that and there is still an awful lot of hurling to be played.
Down through the corridors of time there have been some of the most memorable games of hurling ever played on Munster final day, standout games that time will never erase.
The ’84 final between Cork and Tipp, the 2004 final involving Waterford and Cork are just two and it’s fair to say that the latest final instalment stands right alongside of them and maybe slightly ahead.
In the aftermath of any great sporting event, it can take a couple of days to digest what actually transpired.
Time is required for that and now on the Friday after the game it’s worth reflecting on a few things that made this final so memorable.
Firstly, let it be said that we must be thankful that the aforementioned resolution was found before there would have been a need for a penalty shootout.
Imagine a gargantuan game like this being decided by penalties, the greats of the game from past eras would have turned in their graves.
But it didn’t come to that and Limerick got the verdict. They did so because they are the country’s number one team and have been for some time now.
They have taken the game to new heights over the past few years and could easily be going for five-in-a-row now.
The depth of your squad makes a huge difference in the modern game, being able to bring in fresh legs when the need is at its greatest.
Limerick started doing this back in 2018 against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final and they have been replicating that since using their bench to the effect that is required.
David Reidy and Conor Boylan came in last Sunday and scored huge points, Graeme Mulcahy’s vast experience was crucial after his introduction and so on.
Seamus Flanagan’s display at full-forward was one of the best we have seen from a player in that numbered jersey, eight points from open play was one of the best scoring returns we have seen on Munster final day for many a long day.
The goal that Gearoid Hegarty secured was a score of immense beauty, absolutely brilliant in its construction and sublime in its execution.
There was so much to take from this epic final, the confirmation again that Tony Kelly is the country’s best hurler.
Clare are down but certainly are not out and it will be a big surprise if they are not in the last four at the very least.
They have been outstanding in this championship but in the dying embers last Sunday they just came up short.
In all probability they’ll have Wexford for company in the quarter-final and if their form thus far is replicated it will be a surprise if they are not back on the horse.
Right now, from this viewpoint, the quarter-finals are almost certainly going to be Cork against Galway and Clare against Wexford.
You can never trust Galway but they were flat against Kilkenny and Cork look to have a better balance about them. That took a bit of time to happen but they would be marginal favourites.
That would give us a last four of Limerick, Kilkenny, Clare and Cork with Limerick remaining in pole position to retain the title and Clare just behind them.
There’s little or nothing between Cork and Kilkenny and on their best days neither will be fearful of any opposition.
We cannot dismiss Antrim against Cork and Kerry against Wexford this weekend but the battle is going to intensify from here on in.
Kieran Kingston will have had a good hard look at four of the leading contenders last weekend, taking stock of what transpired and building up a dossier on what will be required.
It’s first things first this weekend with that trip to Antrim and a decision to be made on what the starting 15 will be. With Galway next up a week later if they win, the belief is that they will send out their best unit.
And if a foothold is gained early on the bench could be utilised much earlier than would normally be the case. Antrim will have to recover fast from their rollercoaster of a game against Kerry and they have plenty of scoring ability.
However, the cream should come to the top fairly early and Cork should be okay for the expected much more difficult assignment against Henry Shefflin’s team.
Of course, the bottom line is very simple, hurling continues to rise to levels beyond our wildest imagination and the best might be yet to come.
That won’t be easy after last Sunday’s epic but then again this great game never ceases to amaze.