Kilkenny may cast a long shadow over the All-Ireland senior hurling championship, having collected eight of the last 10 titles on offer, but Munster remains as wide open as ever.
In the previous six seasons, we’ve had four winners in Munster, with current holders Tipperary, Cork, Limerick and Waterford all lifting the prized southern silverware.
We begin this year’s championship with perhaps the most storied rivalry of them all, as Tipperary host Cork at Semple Stadium on 22 May.
It’s a fixture that’s produced so many memorable moments down through the years and this latest instalment promises to be no different.
Tipp will start as favourites but Cork, quiet and coming in under the radar after avoiding relegation from Division 1A of the Allianz Hurling League, are dangerous opponents.
Behind the scenes, manager Kieran Kingston, his backroom staff and players will have been busy devising a game-plan aimed at nullifying a potentially lethal Tipperary attack.
Give those Tipp forwards space in which to operate and they’ll do damage but if Cork bring high levels of intensity and are well organised, they’re in with a chance.
The winners play Limerick on 19 June and by the time the Shannonsiders hit the field, they’ll have had a nine-week lay-off since their league semi-final defeat to Waterford.
In the other semi-final, it’s a straight shootout between league finalists Clare and Waterford. What a game that promises to be!
Waterford were down this road last year, meeting league final opponents again in the first round of the championship, but this time it’s different.
The Déise beat Cork in 2015 to claim league silverware before seeing off the Rebels again five weeks later but Clare have the psychological edge after claiming top-flight silverware for the first time since 1978.
The Munster final is down for decision on Sunday, 10 July.
Holders and favourites with the bookies to retain the Munster title, the Premier County’s form was mixed throughout the Allianz League campaign and it wasn’t until the final round of group fixtures that their place in the knockout stages was confirmed.
A 12-point victory over Cork proved good enough to set up quarter-final with Clare but the Banner men prevailed at Cusack Park.
Tipp registered 18 wides against Clare, however, and lost by just a single point.
Considering how Clare kicked on to claim League honours, Tipp manager Michael Ryan will argue that his charges aren’t too far off the mark.
There were some real positives to emerge from Tipp’s League campaign as young guns Michael Breen, Ronan Maher and John McGrath came of age.
Maher, younger brother of Pádraic, was exceptional at centre back, as Breen forged a formidable midfield partnership with team captain Brendan Maher.
McGrath shone like a beacon in attack, scoring 1-24 from five Division 1A outings before hitting six points from play against Clare.
He should be fully recovered from a recent hamstring injury to make his full senior championship debut against Cork and his presence up front will help to ease the scoring burden on Seamus Callanan, who’s hoping to recapture top form.
A more direct style of play was evident from Tipp throughout the League and if they can get the mix right, the Premier County will be dangerous, as always.
Davy Fitzgerald’s League winners were All-Ireland champions in 2013 but the Banner County hasn’t savoured a Munster senior title win since 1998.
They haven’t been in a final since 2008, when they lost out to Tipp, but are just 70 minutes away from a showpiece decider after being pitched into a semi-final against Waterford.
That promises to be an intriguing affair, in what is a league final repeat, and Clare could be even stronger in terms of the personnel at Fitzgerald’s disposal.
The colourful supremo will hope to have David McInerney and Conor Ryan back fully fit after they missed the concluding stages of the league campaign, but influential forward John Conlon could miss out with a serious ankle injury.
Conlon provides variety in the Clare attack, a proven ball-winner in a forward line packed with talented stick-men.
It was no coincidence that with Conlon firing on all cylinders, Clare bagged four goals against Kilkenny in the league semi-final.
Conlon netted one himself and other forwards profited from his selfless work.
In the league final replay, Tony Kelly stepped up to the plate with a masterful performance and he appears to have timed his return to fitness perfectly.
Fitzgerald realises that in Clare, and particularly on the back of a couple of poor championship campaigns, memories are short.
A league title is short-term currency with championship looming but Clare are good enough to end their Munster famine.
Beaten finalists last year, Waterford will attempt to win their first Munster title since 2010.
The much talked about style of play employed by the Déise took them all the way to an All-Ireland semi-final last year and there’s evidence to suggest that natural evolution could see them go even closer this time.
The general consensus is that Waterford need to improve in an attacking sense to trouble the big boys and in that regard, the emergence of young forwards Shane Bennett and Patrick Curran couldn’t have come at a better time.
Add Pauric Mahony, thankfully restored to fitness following a horror leg break last year, into the mix and Waterford automatically have more attacking options.
They’re still reliant on captain Kevin Moran for inspiration in a deep-lying role while another experienced player, Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh, does the spade-work in attack, thereby allowing others to flourish.
You can be sure that Davy Fitzgerald will have analysed and dissected the Waterford set-up in minute detail at Clare’s training base in Caherlohan.
The Banner County’s spanking new facility boasts a dedicated video analysis room and this will be a second home for Fitzgerald and coach Donal Óg Cusack ahead of the June 5 showdown.
Waterford are a good team, very good in fact, but perhaps it might be another year before they’re truly ready to challenge for the biggest prize of all.
You wouldn’t back against them winning Munster, though, and if they can see off Clare and gain revenge for that League final defeat, they’ll carry huge momentum into a Munster final with Tipperary, Cork or Limerick.
The Rebels were Munster champions two years ago but appear to have regressed considerably since then.
They lost all five of their Division 1A group fixtures but showed admirable character to see off Galway in a relegation play-off to ensure top-flight hurling again next year.
In Conor Lehane [above], Seamus Harney and Patrick Horgan, Cork possess forwards capable of competing with the best but the rest of the team has an unsettled look about it.
Manager Kieran Kingston experimented with different midfield combinations throughout the league and the loss of Stephen McDonnell through injury won’t help Cork’s cause either as they look ahead to the trip to Tipp.
Kingston made big call at the end of the league campaign, opting to drop a number of experienced players as he places a heavy emphasis on youth.
Former captains Shane O’Neill and Patrick Cronin were deemed surplus to requirements, along with Paudie O’Sullivan, Cian McCarthy and Stephen Moylan.
It’s a gamble from Kingston’s perspective but one he obviously feels is worth taking as Cork look to the future.
Cork still have a very decent starting 15 to call upon when everybody is fit, and the presence of Christopher Joyce at centre-back will bring stability to a pivotal line.
Joyce missed the 2015 championship campaign with cruciate knee ligament damage but strength in depth is a worry for Cork and it would come as a major surprise if they’re crowned Kings of Munster again.
TJ Ryan finds himself under pressure as Limerick gear up for the Munster championship campaign.
They’ll have had a long wait since the Allianz League semi-final defeat against Waterford before tasting competitive fare again.
County players have stayed ticking over with a few rounds of club fixtures and on paper, at least, Limerick still boast a team capable of achieving.
The capture of an All-Ireland U21 crown last year was a major fillip and a large number of Limerick’s panel was involved in this year’s Fitzgibbon Cup campaign.
It was a Limerick derby in the prestigious third-level decider, as Mary Immaculate College saw off 2015 winners University Limerick in a classic that went all the way to extra-time.
Richie English, Darragh O’Donovan, Cian Lynch, David Reidy and Declan Hannon all lined out for Mary Immaculate, while UL had Kevin O’Brien, Tom Morrissey, Mike Casey, Gearoid Hegarty and Pat Ryan in their ranks.
As the old saying goes, success breeds success but Limerick are behind the eight-ball as they begin their Munster campaign.
They’ll come in cold against Cork or Tipp, who will have a competitive championship game under their belts, but Limerick have proven in recent seasons that they can recover from underwhelming League campaigns to produce big summer performances.
Last year was a major disappointment, however, as Limerick were crushed by Tipperary in Munster before exiting the All-Ireland series at the hands of Paul Ryan-inspired Dublin.
Champions most recently in 2013, It’s difficult to make a case for Limerick lifting Munster silverware again this summer.