The league is over. The championship is more or less here. Nobody is going to get any fitter or stronger by the time the first ball is thrown in next weekend.
Nobody is going to learn a new skill or start breaking in a new pair of boots. This is a week where teams look around their training pitch and realise that what we have, we have. This is what we’re going to war with, for better or worse.
In that context, there’s no better time to sit down and assess what everyone got out of the early part of the season and where everybody is right now. Things will change, as they always do. But here and now, this is where the championship counties stand.
They had a mixed league, which isn’t a bad thing at all. There’s a major benefit in limiting the hype and strain that surrounds trying to do back-to-back All-Irelands. When they walloped everyone in the 2019 league, it didn’t do them any favours later in the summer. The gap has been closed by the chasing pack, which will sharpen minds and keep the whole set-up on its toes.
Limerick have a settled team and a settled game-plan, so they will welcome all challengers. The panel depth is strong with the return of Richie English and Mike Casey and also the youthful Cathal O'Neill and Colin Coughlan pushing for places.
But the strength of the team is the sum of all its parts, married to intensive work and a possession-based game plan. That requires all links in the chains to be working, which wasn’t quite happening at the start of the league but appeared to be clicking into gear by the end. It looks like the black smoke has been cleared for championship and I expect them to be in the shake-up.
After the rockiest of starts to the year both on and off the field, their stock has risen significantly. Even in the worst of times, the one constant is the electric form of Tony Kelly who continues his super form of last year.
They seemed to have settled on some key positions, with Conor Cleary and John Conlon manning the heart of the defence. That said, I still wouldn't be shocked to see Conlon back in the attack at some stage.
Other positives have been David Reidy's form, the return of Davy McInerney, Rory Hayes becoming their go-to man-marker. Aron Shanagher's aerial prowess has to be key for the smaller, lighter forwards in attack. It's going to be a really tricky assignment for Waterford taking on this athletic team. Panel depth is an issue so keeping key players fit is imperative for Brian Lohan.
The form of Jason Forde is a huge plus. You can say the same at the other end of the pitch too, where Paudie Maher has been shutting down the square at full-back. Both of them bode well for Tipperary's summer.
It's the middle eight where issues remain, specifically a lack of pace. Paddy Cadell has been really good in the latter stages of the league, so maybe he can provide the solution for them there. They will need to marry youth and experience in around there.
I feel Tipperary will be very close. Bonner Maher is a huge loss but they do have plenty of depth. They will need the legs in Cadell, Séamus Kennedy, Michael Breen, Dan McCormack and maybe even Cathal Barrett to compete in and around the middle eight. Get that right and could be very hard to stop. A worry is the form of John McGrath but maybe he is peaking for early July. He will be needed.
An early burst in the league had the hype train in full flow – and with good reason. They have clearly improved on last year.
Mark Coleman is the key man to make them tick from centre-back but beyond him, their running game is scary when it kicks into gear. If they get that ball moving through the hands of Luke Meade, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Robbie O'Flynn with skilful forwards making runs inside, that's their engine.
Where they become predictable though is on their own puck-out. They badly need to expand their options, especially against Limerick who will set traps for them and look to force them to run the ball down blind alleys. On that front, maybe Séamus Harnedy around the square would be a good decoy.
Inside, Patrick Horgan will be himself and they have really bright young talent in around him now in Jack O'Connor and Alan Connolly, which they haven't had for a good while.
I would have concerns about the development of Waterford this year. It’s so hard to back up last year’s super championship with what is still quite a limited panel to begin with. It’s even harder when you lose Stephen O’Keeffe, Tadhg De Búrca and Darragh Fives, not just three nailed-on starters but genuine team leaders.
Now, that has been offset a little by the return of Shane Bennett and to be fair, they have had a decent league where they have put up some good scoring totals, even if some of them have been in defeat.
Would anyone be too surprised if they were ambushed by Clare next weekend? I don't think so. Austin Gleeson continues to be their star man so they will be sweating on his fitness in the days to come. Conor Prunty and Shane Bennett have really come to the fore and they will be badly needed. I am not sold on them but Liam Cahill is most certainly squeezing the best out of them.
The team of the year so far. Two years ago they couldn't get out of Division 2A, finishing behind Westmeath and Kerry. But they have obviously developed well beyond that tier of teams now and they put in a strong league showing, beating Clare and Laois and drawing with Wexford.
Darren Gleeson's charges will fancy a real cut off Dublin next weekend. Neil McManus is their go-to man but Paddy Burke and Niall McKenna are key to them too. Well able to mix the short passing with the long game, they were joint-top goalscorers in 1B.
Nobody will be taking them for granted so they won’t have the element of surprise on their side. But Gleeson wouldn’t have wanted to rely on that anyway. The next step is a championship victory. Can’t be ruled out.
A strong league showing but what would you expect from a Brian Cody Kilkenny only that? Adrian Mullen is back and is a huge boost and James Bergin shows flickering potential inside. Darragh Corcoran has had a really good debut league and Billy Ryan has kicked on from 2020.
The worry will be what it has been for the past few seasons. Who will be the lieutenants for TJ Reid in the forward line? When Waterford held TJ in the second half of last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Kilkenny lacked other guys to step up. Colin Fennelly's absence doesn't help that cause but there are guys there in Mullen, Walter Walsh and Richie Hogan who can show the way.
This team will be built around Pádraig Walsh, TJ, Mullen and hopefully a fit-again Conor Delaney who is a key defender. Kilkenny teams continue to empty themselves in games so they will always have that. Some slight variations of the short mixed with the long game has been a feature throughout the league as well.
They haven't reached the heights since the All-Ireland semi-final in 2019, which will be a concern for Davy Fitz. But if nothing else, that bad year in 2020 will make them all determined to give a better account of themselves this time around.
Tactically, the need for a Plan B when their short running game is shut down is a must. They can’t not be aware of this. Now, we haven’t seen much different from them in the league to suggest what that might be but then Davy surely won’t show his hand too early.
If they could afford to leave Lee Chin at 14, that would make them very dangerous. It would allow them to mix short passing with a long option, as he can win hard ball high or low even when double-teamed. The return to form of Dee O’Keeffe and Liam Óg McGovern is key for their running style. One huge plus has been Rory O’Connor’s blistering form and they will need that to get back to a semi-final stage.
A big year for Matty Kenny's Dublin project and the pieces do seem to be falling into place, finally. Liam Rushe deployed to centre-back has solidified the defence and the key for Dublin now is to leave him there and not continually parachute him back into the forwards
With Rushe holding the middle, it's a hard defence to break down, especially with the untouchable Eoghan O'Donnell behind him. It's further up the field where issues are. Mark Schutte will help alongside Danny Sutcliffe, Chris Crummy and Donal Burke but they need more help from Ronan Hayes, Eamonn Dillion and co. The inconsistency is always the issue with Dublin. We wait with bated breath to see what they turn up with.
The frontrunners to really challenge Limerick in this championship. They have it all – they are physical, pacy, they have high skill levels and probably have developed the best panel, better than Limerick’s even.
In addition to the guys who bubbled up for them last year like Fintan Burke, Shane Cooney and Brian Concannon, you can now add in Evan Niland, Jack Fitzpatrick and Darren Morrissey. Those are some serious options.
The form of Cathal Mannion is key, and his loss in the semi-final last year was so crucial. They have the luxury of playing Joe Canning anywhere from eight to 15 depending on what they need. There is a nice blend of youth and experience in this panel and I expect big things from them in the next few months.
A mixed league for Cheddar Plunkett’s men where they seem to undo a lot of good work in games through not being smart enough or composed enough to get results. It has left them with a lot of work to do and not a lot of time to do it, with Wexford on the horizon next weekend.
Laois need to solidify their defence and find more variation in attack. Cha Dwyer and Ross King lead the line well but they need more support. It could be a challenging year for Cheddar in his first year back.