bThe Allianz Hurling League has been wrapped up for another year and there’s already less than six weeks left until the start of the Leinster and Munster Championships.
Theres are 10 counties, five in each province, in the hunt for the Liam MacCarthy Cup in 2019 and at least half-a-dozen of them can harbour realistic ambitions of coming out on top.
Last summer threw up the greatest hurling championship in living memory and while it may be optimistic to see that standard repeated again in the coming months, it should be exciting given the depth of quality in this closely packed race.
Here RTÉ Sport runs the rule over the contenders and rates their chances of lifting the big prize in August.
Retaining the All-Ireland isn’t easy; only Kilkenny have done it in the past decade and first-time winners like Limerick historically have found it difficult to hang on to the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
But if any side can buck those trends, Limerick look to be the one. Certainly they are the form team in the competition and their recent Division 1 final win over Waterford at Croke Park continued their rich vein of form.
Manager John Kiely has a lot of tools at his disposal - he has a physically powerful, lightening fast, highly skilled and deep squad of players. They will take a lot of stopping.
With Joe Canning fit and firing, this Galway team would be right on Limerick’s toes. But the fact remains that the former Hurler of the Year looks set to sit out the next three-plus months and will miss all of the Leinster championship.
That leaves the Tribesmen, champions in 2017 and narrowly beaten finalists in 2018, without their leader who they rely so much upon and searching for at least one other to stand up and drive the team forward.
If they can keep the show on the road without Joe until the knock-out stages and he hits the ground running on his return, they’ll be hard for anyone to talk to.
Their Division 1 campaign ended with a question mark rather than an exclamation point when they were hammered by Waterford in the quarter-finals, but they have enough credit in the bank to maintain a top three ranking.
The bulk of the 2013 All-Ireland winning side is still there, bolstered by brilliant young talent like Peter Duggan, and they came close to making last year’s final, only squeezed out by Galway following an epic semi-final replay.
The Cats lost out to Cork in the recent Division 1A relegation play-off, though in reality it was a game with nothing at stake due to the restructuring of the League next year so it isn’t indicative of a serious slump in form.
Brian Cody has adapted and his team played through the lines more during the spring, tempering their usual aerial bombardment. Leaders likes of TJ Reid and Colin Fennelly will be back having been tied up with Ballyhale Shamrocks’ All-Ireland club win.
The Rebels have built a base of success in the Munster championship and this year will be a test of their abilities to transfer that onto the national stage. Their recent win over Kilkenny saw their League campaign end on a positive.
Manager John Meyler can call upon outstanding individuals like Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan. Their squad strength doesn’t look to be the same as those at the very top of the list though and this could hurt them through a long and arduous season.
Tipperary looked set to dominate after their 2016 All-Ireland triumph when they finally ended Cody dynasty. It was their second Liam MacCarthy win of the decade - something they hadn’t done since the sixties - and their age profile looked perfect.
That hasn’t come close to working out though. Liam Sheedy is back trying to repeat his 2010 success and he has a strong, talented squad at his disposal. Their recent quarter-final defeat to Dublin raises even more questions though.
They have the quality, no doubt about it. Harnessing it is the conundrum.
Waterford are a very good team and what was holding them back from being the very best was a lack of squad depth and fire-power up front.
New manager Páraic Fanning has done his best to address both of these issues while introducing a more free-wheeling attacking philosophy. Playing their home games at home in Walsh Park should see them better last season’s Munster displays.
Davy Fitzgerald’s team have a bit to go before they can be ranked as genuine All-Ireland contenders, but they are certainly good enough to beat any of the teams ranked above them in a one-off occasion.
They showed enough in topping Division 1B ahead of Waterford and Galway, and their subsequent win over Tipperary to suggest they’ll be fighting for a place in the knock-out stages beyond the Leinster championship.
Carlow’s season was made when they beat Offaly in the Division 1B play-off, ensuring their top flight status in the League this year. They’re fighting a rear-guard action against finishing bottom in Leinster and potential relegation back to the Joe McDonagh Cup.