A weekend festival of hurling awaits. In the absence of the round-robin series in Leinster and Munster, it should satisfy purists of the ancient game as they pine for something to ignite this out-of-kilter championship.
So far, Limerick have sent early warnings that they mean business, a steely determination that they want to win back Liam MacCarthy. Away from the action, much talk has focussed on the yellow sliotar, the increasing scoring-rate in games and whether hurling needs a sin-bin or a black card.
There is merit in discussing the latter two; the 'Game for the Gods' should not be beyond such scrutiny. But for now, there are games to be won.
Two provincial finals and two qualifier battles will be played out across a weekend where the weather, yet again, may prove to be a spoilsport. Eight teams will become six when the dust has settled, with only five more games to be played before Liam MacCarthy is handed out on the second Sunday in December. After the feast, there is a famine, despite the back-door route being kept for this championship in the year of Covid.
Less games allows for a bit more breathing space, so unlike 2018 and '19, the Leinster and Munster finals will be played on separate days. Saturday evening at Croke Park will see the Bob O'Keeffe Cup, extra-time and penalty drama permitting, being handed over to the winning captain at around 8pm. The Munster final has Sunday to itself, with a 4pm throw-in at Semple Stadium.
In the last-chance saloon corner, Clare's clash with Wexford and the meeting of old rivals Cork and Tipperary adds greatly to the pot of intrigue that could be played out on Saturday afternoon. The quartet have all a lost a game, with Clare and Cork reigniting their seasons with wins over Laois and Dublin respectively last weekend.
Wexford, in the words of manager Davy Fitzgerald "showed no guts, no fight and no character" in their Leinster semi-final loss to Galway. Questions abound as to whether the Yellowbellies were over-trained, given that Fitzgerald would have had access to most of his players since the end of August following the conclusion of the Wexford club hurling championship.
Liam Sheedy was also scathing as he watched the All-Ireland champions offer little resistance against Limerick in the Munster semi, highlighting Tipp's "basic errors" and a lack of energy in the defeat.
The expectation is that both Wexford and Tipperary will improve. I'm sure this last fortnight was used to get both teams back up to speed. Will it be a case of chalk and cheese when they resume battle? Remember, Tipp recovered from a bit of a spanking from Limerick in the Munster final to win the big prize last year.
Last weekend Cork upset Kerry in the football championship. Hurling, because of the competitive nature of its top table, is less likely to produce outcomes that make the earth shudder. Laois' win over Dublin last year was unexpected, a surprise rather than a shock.
Waterford dethroning Limerick in Sunday's Munster showdown could be be viewed as a surprise given the Déise's poor championship return in the last two seasons. But the county are now a more formidable force under Liam Cahill, and one must factor in the ease in which they dealt with Cork.
A first Leinster final under lights brings together a Galway side who seem to have rediscovered their zest under Shane O'Neill and Kilkenny, still perhaps wondering how the let things nearly slip against Dublin. The form from a fortnight ago would favour the Tribesmen here against opposition who last won a provincial title in 2016.
In this year of years, Galway, Kilkenny and Waterford could land the All-Ireland by winning four matches. Tipperary played eight times to win the big prize last year. Is it best to ignore stats that don't favour some?
Only four times since 1998 (introduction of back-door) has a team who has lost a provincial final gone on to win an All-Ireland. In the same period, just three teams went all the way, having earlier not made a provincial decider.
For Tipperary fans, there is still that long gap going back to 1964-65, since the county last won back-to-back AlI-Irelands. Galway, only winning one title since 1988, is a scant return on the back of many successful underage teams. And then there's Cork. They went the last decade without an All-Ireland to their name, breaking a sequence that goes back to the 1890s.
New stats and perhaps more unwanted history may arise over the next five weekends.
Watch Galway v Kilkenny in the Leinster SHC final this on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player from 5.45pm. Limerick v Waterford in the Munster SHC final on Sunday (4pm throw-in) live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player. Live commentary on both games on RTÉ Radio's Saturday Sport and Sunday Sport. Highlights of all the weekend's GAA action on The Sunday Game from 9.30pm on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.
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