THE Munster Hurling Championship kicks off this weekend with Cork having the luxury of sitting back and watching their four provincial rivals kicking lumps out of each other.
It’s time to grab the popcorn.
Limerick host Waterford at the Gaelic Grounds, while Tipperary travel to the hostile surrounds that make up Cusack Park in Ennis, as they look to avoid registering an unwanted record of seven straight championship defeats in a row.
Limerick are 1/10 to kick off their Munster and All-Ireland defence with a victory, but the Clare Tipp game looks to be a coin toss, with the bookies making Brian Lohan’s charges one point favourites in the handicap.
Tipp already look much better than last year, with Liam Cahill now in charge.
The responsibility of honouring the life of former teammate Dillon Quirke will also act as huge inspiration for them, and as a result it might not be a great idea to be backing against them this year, even if away to Clare is a very difficult task to start your championship bid.
Limerick have reached peak aura right now. They are similar to Leinster in rugby at the minute in that respect.
Leinster make up the majority of the Irish rugby team right now, and for good reason – you imagine that if there was a hurling equivalent then Limerick would have a similar representation on the hypothetical Irish hurling team.
Teams seem beaten before they take to the pitch against them.
It does not matter what kind of approach counties bring to taking on Limerick, John Kiely’s charges always seem to have the answer, and in fact, this aura is so strong right now that most teams are probably contemplating the potential thrashing that Limerick are going to dish out to them, as opposed to what they themselves can do to topple them.
In that respect it will be extremely interesting to see how Davy Fitzgerald sets up his Waterford team for the opening game at Semple Stadium. In their league campaign it was noticeable how the Waterford full forward line withdrew way out to midfield.
To most observers it seems crazy to have firepower of the calibre of Dessie Hutchinson, Michael Kiely, Austin Gleeson and Stephen Bennett, yet to deploy them in the middle third, but it would appear to be all part of a plan with Limerick in mind.
The Waterford full back line is also pushing up towards the middle, with the thinking obviously being that if the Déise can control the middle they can restrict the influence that the likes of Gearoid Hegarty, Declan Hannon, Barry Nash, Kyle Hayes and Cian Lynch can have on proceedings.
It’s a risky strategy, and one that is liable to make the middle eight a complete dogfight, if they do really go full hog with this approach then expect cards, lots of cards.
It could work out that potentially the Limerick game might not give Cork manager Pat Ryan a lot to work with in regards their opener against Waterford, as Waterford’s set up against the All-Ireland champions might be very different to how they set up against the rebels.
With Cork’s injury profile, particularly in the full back line at present, it would make sense for teams to go after Cork in this sector of the pitch, so if we end up seeing the likes of Hutchinson around the centre of the pitch you would expect that Ryan would be quite happy.
As for Cork themselves, injuries have defined their year to date, and unfortunately this still remains the case.
We are now inside two weeks to championship throw in and we are still no wiser as to the availability and fitness levels of a lot of Cork’s leading players such as Sean O’Donoghue, Tim O’Mahony, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Robbie O’Flynn.
Cork might well have to gamble on some of these players and hope that they can get up to championship pace despite having little or no league campaign in the legs.
The one positive around Cork’s injury woes is that it has allowed Ryan and his management team to expose more members of their extended panel to inter county combat, as it is likely that deep squads will be required to negotiate the obstacle course that is the Munster Championship.
Everyone, for obvious reasons, is marking Limerick off as absolute certs to finish in the top three in Munster and thereby securing a spot in the following All-Ireland series.
We might have a better idea of who the other two counties might be after next weekend’s opening fixtures.