Of all the ridiculous, knee-jerk comments made about the Munster SHC this year, suggesting Waterford should be relegated instead of Carlow has to top them.
The Leinster SHC looks set to finish on a high with the four teams vying for the three qualifying spots, but on Sunday, Carlow all but bowed out following their 12-point home loss to Dublin, who played most of the game with 14 men.
Beat Wexford away this weekend and Carlow could avoid the drop, but it’s next to inevitable that they will fall.
Their score difference of -32 is seven better than Waterford, but picture Carlow in the Munster SHC and the scenario would be grave.
In all three of Waterford’s games, their opponents put out their strongest teams. Were Carlow to be entered in the Munster SHC, would the four other teams field their best 15 against them?
The demise of the 2017 All-Ireland runners-up has been staggering, their run of eight SHC matches without a win grim, but the Munster SHC remains the best provincial competition across the two codes. Here’s why:
“Celtic Symphony” boomed from the Limerick dressing room in Walsh Park on Sunday as the All-Ireland champions got back “on the road again” following their home loss to Cork.
John Kiely expected his players would respond positively and there is little doubt just how beneficial the 20-point win was to their score difference.
However, there is real peril for Limerick this weekend. Should Cork, as expected, beat Waterford then Limerick simply cannot afford to lose to Clare.
Were that to happen, a victory against Tipperary in Semple Stadium on June 16 would not be enough, as it would at best see them finish level on four points with Clare or Cork who will have the edge over them in the head-to-head.
Last summer’s Munster SHC isn’t all that reliable a gauge, but no team playing three consecutive weekends won that third game and yet that’s the schedule that faces both Clare and Limerick in 12 days’ time.
Waterford may be consistently poor, but from going into this season on the back of five consecutive SHC matches without a win, Tipperary have now strung together three comprehensive victories that has made them All-Ireland favourites.
Second from bottom in Munster last year, their transformation has been outstanding and all with so much of the same personnel that finished out last season.
Of the team that made a mockery of Clare’s fine home record on Sunday, 10 began last year’s defeat to the Banner in Thurles.
Thirteen of Sunday’s team featured in that loss at some point.
Of the 19 players used by Liam Sheedy in Cusack Park, 15 were involved in the counties’ meeting 12 months previously.
Tipperary may be in the clear, yet it’s possible they could be joined on six points by two of Clare, Cork, and Limerick who all have a game in hand on them.
At the same stage last year, all five teams remained in the hunt for the Munster final spots and the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final place but only two teams had two points to their name — Clare and Tipperary.
Yes, there were three draws by this point in contrast to none so far this time around, but the Sword of Damocles hangs over three of last year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists.
Anthony Daly and Jackie Tyrrell were dismissed when they suggested Limerick mightn’t escape Munster this year, but it’s a clear and present danger now.
The crowds in Walsh Park aside (Clare supporters were always keeping their money for their two home games and Sunday’s short skip to Limerick, while Waterford’s form turned off a lot of their own two days ago), the numbers going to Munster SHC games have made for pleasant reading.
Up 15% going into last weekend, the 124,633 aggregate total for the first six games this summer has now fallen behind the 125,929 number in 2018.
However, the 203,445 total for the 10 round games last year is still expected to be broken with Limerick-Clare set to attract about 30,000, rejuvenated Cork and high-flying Tipperary each having one home game left and the possibility of Clare v Cork on Sunday week being a virtual knock-out game.
The average margin of victory/defeat this summer has increased alarmingly to 11 points from 4.9 in the round-robin stages in 2018, and yet five away wins from the six fixtures would suggest another form of parity.
Excluding Cork’s win in Waterford’s designated home venue of the Gaelic Grounds last year, Clare beating Tipperary in Semple Stadium was the only match in which the home form guide was upset.
Since this round-robin experiment began last year, each team have been beaten at home.
So much for home comforts.
Driving into Ennis on Sunday, the passion of Tommy Walsh jumped from the airwaves as he took it upon himself to build up the Waterford-Limerick game on Newstalk.
The Kilkenny great, as others like Henry Shefflin and Jackie Tyrrell have done in the past, called for the Déise to play with abandon and harked back to the Justin McCarthy era of cavalier hurling.
Without the stellar forward-line that McCarthy had, that was wishful thinking on Walsh’s part.
It would have been utterly foolish for Páraic Fanning to instruct his players to play off-the-cuff against Limerick, a team who also thrive on systems of play.
Ex-Kilkenny players get so nostalgic when Waterford’s brand of hurling is brought up in conversation but they are also coming from a position of strength.
For all their brashness and exciting hurling, McCarthy’s Waterford were never able to beat Kilkenny when it mattered most.
In Kilkenny and Waterford, there will be some sympathy for Fanning from those who don’t subscribe to Derek McGrath’s philosophy.
They might consider it will take time to “weed out” elements of his reign.
However, that school of thought neglects the fact Fanning isn’t averse to playing a sweeper as much as he hasn’t shied away from it of late.
From the Division 1 final onwards, Waterford have fallen between two stools to the point players are confused.
They love structure but there has been a departure from that and Fanning may have strayed a little from some of his core beliefs.
Given their concern, there should be a queue of Kilkenny people for the Waterford job when it next becomes vacant but Fanning, although he inherited a stronger group than McGrath, deserves this season’s grace to really put his stamp on things.
Even if Saturday evening did see him on the sideline with almost half an hour of football remaining, it could be regarded as one of the best evenings in Brian Hurley’s life never mind career.
After all his hamstring issues, here he was scoring a brace of goals later to discover his beloved Liverpool were on their way to winning a sixth European Cup.
Ronan McCarthy’s reassurance that Hurley’s 45th minute withdrawal wasn’t serious will provide some relief.
As the manager said about the 27-year-old, he’s reached a point of maturity where he knows not to push his body too much.
“The beauty of Brian is that, at this stage, he’s old enough to know that if he’s at training on a given night and he’s not right, he’ll step out of it and we leave that up to him.”
With the game all but won at that early juncture, Hurley was no longer required but he will be needed for every nanosecond of June 22’s Munster final.
A half-time introduction last year, by which stage Kerry were seven points up and had scored 12 times to Cork’s three, the Castlehaven man hasn’t started a Championship game against Kerry since the 2015 provincial final replay.
With one Cork goal poacher, Colm O’Neill, having been forced to retire and another in Ciarán Sheehan possibly returning to county colours next year, at least there is one currently available.
With a fully fit Hurley, Cork can look to being at least competitive against Kerry.
Dalo's Hurling Show: Tipp quench the inferno. Kiely's statement. The Déise inquest
Derek McGrath and Ger Cunningham review the weekend's hurling with Anthony Daly