After the headlong gallop through the first part of the hurling championship, there's a small bit of a break now for everyone left standing to take stock. The round robin series in Munster and Leinster presented challenges that never existed before. The flipside of that is that having got through them, each team now has had learning opportunities that in the past would have taken a full season to rack up.
It’s no insult to Carlow or Westmeath to say that the All-Ireland winner will come from the other six counties. On that basis, now is a good time to break down where each contender stands by asking two simple questions . . .
(1) What did they get out of their round-robin series?
(2) What do they need to work on from here?
They got: Consistency, both in their style of play and selection. James Skehill has come in for the injured Colm Callanan, but otherwise they've basically gone with 13 of the 14 outfield players from last year's team. Made a few changes for the Dublin game, but overall they know who they are.
Can you think of any player who has given Micheál Donoghue a chance to drop him? No. Everyone is showing the same hunger as last year; nobody has a blemish against their name. They have taken their physicality, aggression and, most importantly, skill to a new level. Got through Leinster unbeaten, no major injuries. Just how Donoghue would have hoped.
Need to work on: Goals. Take out the Offaly game and they only scored two goals against Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny. For a team that is so dominant in each game that is a poor return. Everybody knows they won the All-Ireland last year without scoring too many goals, but can you do that two years in a row? There will come a time before this championship is over when a game needs a goal. I'm not saying they can't score them, just that they haven't been.
The other thing they need to keep in mind is the fact that they haven’t had a test yet. I thought Kilkenny and Wexford would give them a game but neither of them did. They won’t go the whole championship without a crisis – what will they do when it comes? Their internal games have to prepare them for that moment. They have to be really hard on each other as a panel to keep them at a high level of performance.
They got: New faces. Between their first game against Galway and their last game against Wexford they made six changes. They're slowly coming around to the team they want for the rest of the championship. Look at the guys that finished the Wexford game – John Donnelly, Mossy Keoghan, Richie Leahy, Enda Morrissey. Add in Paddy Deegan and James Maher and you have half a dozen lads in their first or second year. To freshen everything up that much and still finish second in the group and make a Leinster final will give them huge confidence.
Need to work on: First off, delivery of ball from defence. The Galway game showed that when the opposition attack really presses up on Kilkenny defenders – especially with big, physical, aggressive forwards – they're forced to clear the ball long and high off their back foot. That generally turns it into a defender's ball at the other end. Instead of trying to break out through tackles, Kilkenny need to work those little triangles in defence to get out into space so that they can measure their balls into attack. Croke Park's wide open spaces will help somewhat with that.
Secondly, they can't be so over-reliant on TJ Reid. They need more from Wally Walsh. They need Richie Hogan to get up to speed, Colin Fennelly has to come into it more. Kilkenny need alternative game plans for when TJ is shackled. If Gearóid McInerney locks him down in the Leinster final, what then? Do they put him to corner-forward? Midfield? Every other team is going to have a plan for TJ, like Wexford did with Matthew O'Hanlon. Kilkenny need to be prepared to mix it up when that happens.
They got: Three rock-solid options in Rory O'Connor, Paudie Foley and Damien Reck. Davy Fitzgerald would probably like for O'Connor not to have to assume so much responsibility this early in his career, but he is the go-to guy in their attack now. Foley is an excellent wing-back, strong and forceful in the tackle and confident both going forward and with his long-range frees. Reck is developing into a top quality corner-back.
As well as those guys, they have definitely developed their style of play this year. They're more fluid than last year – everyone outside of Shaun Murphy has licence to bomb forward and take scores. Diarmuid O'Keeffe is basically a half-forward with the number seven on his back. They can all shoot with confidence, knowing it's part of the gameplan rather than just an accident of the ball randomly falling their way in a shooting position.
Need to work on: Lee Chin and Conor McDonald have to get into the game way, way more than they have been. Wexford need so much more out of both of them. Chin hasn't done anything notable since the Kilkenny game last year; McDonald goes long chunks of games without getting his hand on the ball. Wexford have to try something different with them – give them 20 minutes as a two-man full-forward unit and see how the opposition defence likes it.
They got: Confidence. I would say they're possibly the most confident team now relative to where they started. Their key players have come to the fore – Tony Kelly, Peter Duggan, John Conlon, Podge Collins. Conlon scored a goal against Waterford that I'm pretty confident no other forward in the country could score. TJ Reid and Joe Canning might try to score it and get fouled – only Conlon has the pure strength in possession to be able to take on three men and score the goal. Add those altogether and I think this team could go really deep into the All-Ireland series.
Need to work on: Getting Shane O'Donnell into the game more. For a player who is so brilliant at securing possession, he is so frustrating in his reluctance to shoot. They're not getting enough return from him. It might be an idea to go with him and Conlon in a two-man full-forward line and pump ball into both of them.
But beyond that, I think it’s a mindset thing with O’Donnell. He is such a hard worker and such a team player that he is always looking to lay the ball off. If I was managing him I’d make him take 30 sliotars at the start of training and 30 sliotars at the end, and just get him coming out on to them and shooting for points. Just to drive that instinct into him so that the first time he gets onto the ball in a game he turns and shoots and gets his confidence up. He has such potential to be a brilliant forward but we’re not seeing it enough.
They got: First and foremost, an unbeaten campaign. They haven't lost a game in Munster since May 2016. That must give them serious confidence. The likes of Shane Kingston, Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and these guys didn't necessarily need to improve but they did need to hit the same heights as last year. That wasn't a given, especially given that you could argue that they overachieved last year.
Cork have kept the same standards despite having lost Alan Cadogan. Patrick Horgan, Seamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane are their leaders in attack, and all three have their game in good working order. Their stand-out performer has been Daniel Kearney, who is back to 2013 levels of form.
It's a tribute to them and to John Meyler that they've done all this under new management. The first year of any new manager's reign has the potential to be a bit iffy, with everyone slightly uncertain about where they stand or what their role is. There has been none of that from Cork. They had a dodgy enough league, but there's been no sign of a wobble in the championship. They are the best team in the championship when a game loosens up.
Need to work on: Sorting out number six. They have seen Mark Ellis, Christopher Joyce and Eoin Cadogan all playing there. It's not the sort of position you can be experimenting with this deep into the championship. If they don't have certainty there they're left open and vulnerable down the heart of their defence. When a game gets physical and intense Cork need a pillar at centre-back, the sort of player who is going to break up attacks, take an inspirational catch and drive out with the ball. They need to decide who that is and stick with him.
They got: A nice kick up the arse last weekend after a near-perfect campaign. Losing against Clare will do them no harm. The hype will come down that little bit because of it. there was all this talk about them being the number two team in the country behind Galway, and that was going to do them no good. I do genuinely think they will win an All-Ireland in the next two or three years, but they won't manage it getting carried away by hype.
What the round-robin series told them most of all is that they're a really well balanced team. They have no star players – and by that I mean they have nobody who is irreplaceable. Cian Lynch is their stand-out player so far, but if he got hit by a bus tomorrow they have Paul Browne, who is a serious performer, to come off the bench. They have nobody who the opposition can say, "right lads, if we shut him down, we have Limerick where we want them". That sort of balanced threat throughout a team is massive.
Need to work on: Settling on a full-back. Their full-back line in general is a bit of a weak point, but I think if they locked down the number three jersey it would go a long way to sorting the problem. To my mind they should put Richie English in there. It might be a year or two early but I think he's going to end up there eventually, so why not go for it now? He might make a few boo-boos but it's an investment in the future. When they go and win their All-Ireland I'd be confident that he'll be their full-back. Now's the time to start him on that road.