TWO of the main contenders for what is certain to prove a hugely competitive All-Ireland Hurling Championship made important statements last weekend.
Kilkenny and Waterford are through to their respective provincial finals. While they did so in contrasting fashion, both were very impressive in their own way.
Stung by their poor display against Dublin in the National League final, Kilkenny responded with a comprehensive 1-26 to 1-15 Leinster semi-final success over Wexford. Encouragingly, Henry Shefflin was back to contribute 0-9, six of which were from frees.
Waterford found themselves a in cracking Munster semi-final against a rejuvenated Limerick at Semple Stadium. After playing second fiddle for most of the first half, Limerick suddenly came alive to really put it up to the reigning Munster Champions.
Amazingly, they had turned things around to the extent that they led by two points going into injury time only to see John Mullane bang in a superb Waterford goal and snatch a 3-15 to 3-14 victory. Some 15,650 turned up in the dreadful wet and windy conditions but this was a game which deserved at least twice that attendance.
The Kilkenny-Wexford hurling semi-final in front of a packed Wexford Park was nowhere near as exciting. But that's not going to bother Kilkenny boss Brian Cody.
Cody saw the real Kilkenny return to action after the dismal day at the office against Dublin. Without question, the return of Shefflin, amongst others, had much to do with the big improvement.
By his own high standards, Shefflin was reasonably quiet from open play but his presence alone and accurate free-taking combined to have a settling effect on the Kilkenny side.
It was a much-changed Kilkenny outfit in every sense. Unsurprisingly, Cody was well pleased, playing down the defeat to Dublin.
Maybe though the League final defeat will prove to be the kick up the backside that Kilkenny needed. Only the Leinster final against the winner of Galway-Dublin clash will really answer that question but there's no question that Kilkenny have taken a major step in the right direction.
The truth is that Wexford never looked capable of extending them, although they did reduce the deficit to 1-16 to 1-12 at one stage in the second half. Kilkenny were always the superior outfit with Michael Fennelly producing an outstanding display in midfield. Michael Rice and Richie Power were also top class, contributing four points each, while Richie Hogan got 1-1.
Wexford boss Colm Bonnar was impressed with Kilkenny, arguing that "Tipperary are possibly the only team that could beat them at the moment". That, many would suggest, may be pushing things a bit.
No one, for example, would rule out the winners of Galway and Dublin in the Leinster final or, for that matter, Waterford, following their hard fought success over Limerick. Okay, the match was a bit of a roller-coaster against opposition who played in Division Two of the National League this season, but it is the fighting qualities of Waterford which makes them so dangerous.
Many teams would have gone under to a fantastic Limerick fightback, inspired by two goal hero Kevin Downes. In a spell towards the end of the first half and the start of the second, Limerick outscored Waterford by 2-5 to 0-2 to turn the game on its head.
Downes's second goal left Limerick two points (3-11 to 2-12) clear only for Waterford to draw level. Point from substitute David Breen and Niall Moran then put Limerick in sight of a marvellous victory with time running out.
But Mullane was on hand to do what he does best, scoring a late spectacular goal. In one way, you would have to say that Limerick were unlucky not to have secured a replay.
But, equally, credit must go to Waterford for the why they stuck to their task. "Everything was going against us today and we stuck with it," argued manager Davy Fitzgerald.
"We might get beaten in this championship but we won't throw in the towel. The character these lads show is immense."
Waterford will now face Tipperary or Clare in the Munster final with Limerick going into the qualifiers. Sensibly, Limerick boss Donal O'Grady refused to be downhearted.
He said: "A draw would have been a fair result but the team that gets the most scores deserves to win. It was a ding-dong struggle but our youngsters stood up well and, with a bit of luck at the end, we might have got home. But we just couldn't do anymore."
Carlow shock Louth
MOST games went according to the script on the football front with Donegal, Roscommon and Wexford moving through to the next round of their respective championships.
But there was an exception, and it was quite a shock at that with Carlow pipping last year's Leinster finalists Louth by 0-14 to 0-13 at O'Moore Park, Portlaoise. It was Carlow's first Leinster Championship success since 2006.
They were faced by a Louth team that could and should have won the Leinster title last season had it not been for a late illegal Meath goal. So, everything suggested that Louth would have too much class for their opponents on Sunday.
But Carlow were in this game from the start, building up a 0-6 to 0-3 lead at one stage. The situation looked even less promising for Louth when they had corner-back Dessie Finnegan sent off just before half-time.
They were 0-8 to 0-5 down at the interval but the 14-men of Louth suddenly found their form to pull 0-13 to 0-10 clear going into the final 10 minutes. It was then that Carlow's brilliant 21-year-old midfielder Brendan Murphy took the game by the scruff of the neck.
He banged over a 40 meter side-line kick to reduce the margin before his young brother Brian, and Daniel St Ledger brought Carlow level as the game went into injury time. And it was the 6ft 5in Brendan Murphy who provided a fitting climax when nailing the winning point just before the final whistle.
Next up it's a Leinster semi-final against a Wexford outfit which comprehensively outplayed Westmeath. Carlow manager Luke Dempsey is quite rightly looking forward to the occasion but he also only has to look at what happened to Leitrim to recognize how things can quickly turn.
Leitrim were on a high having beaten Sligo in the opening round of the Connacht Championship. But they didn't come even close to repeating that level of performance when they were trounced by 2-12 to 0-6 in the semi-final.
A good crowd turned up at Carrick-on-Shannon hoping for a big Leitrim effort. Instead, Roscommon strolled to victory with Leitrim failing to come to terms either with the wet conditions or their opponents.
For that, Roscommon must be given some credit. They played well, with Michael Finneran giving a big performance in midfield and Senan Kilbride, Donie Shine and Conor Devaney all looking dangerous up front.
Shine and Devaney took their goals really well, while Kilbride contributed 0-5 with a very classy display. Roscommon will now face the winners of Mayo and Galway in the Connacht final.
Leitrim boss Micky Moran tried to take it on the chin, asking the media "not to be too critical." But he admitted that his team just hadn't performed. Nor, in fact, did Cavan as they went under by 2-14 to 1-8 to Donegal in the Ulster quarter-final at Breffni Park. They were never in it against a Donegal team determined to prove their critics wrong.
They went some way towards doing so with a workmanlike performance. The only drawback was a red card which could keep skipper Michael Murphy out of the semi-final clash with Tyrone.
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness is adamant that they have good grounds for an appeal on the basis that Murphy was only trying to shoulder his opponent. Cavan, it has to be said, also had a player, midfielder Ray Cullivan sent off in the first half.
Those incidents apart, it was a case of Donegal having too much ability for their rivals. Interestingly, McGuinness chose to give 17-year-old Paddy McBrearty a first Ulster start and the youngster responded by scoring a 20the minute goal.
In fact, McBrearty finished with 1-3 to be his side's leading scorer, ahead of the impressive Colm McFadden who finished with 0-5. McGuinness, while pleased with the ease of the victory, fully appreciates that better will be required if Donegal are to beat Tyrone.
"We are going to have to be more economical and intelligent with the ball." McGuinness insisted before having a go at some of media, chiefly RTE, for their comments following the opening round victory over Antrim.
Wexford's effort in trouncing Westmeath by 1-24 to 0-15 was probably the best footballing display of the weekend. And no one was better than Ciaran Lyng who scored 0-10, with three of them coming from frees.
Wexford played an attacking brand of open football that was far too good for Westmeath. Ben Brosnan and Redmond Barry were also excellent, contributing 0-5, and 1-3 respectively. As hard as Dessie Dolan (0-7) and Denis Glennon (0-4) tried for Westmeath, they were always fighting a losing battle.
Unsurprisingly, Wexford boss Jason Ryan was delighted, stating: "To play that type of attacking football you need possession. We had that type of possession today."
Football qualifiers draw
The full All-Ireland SFC qualifier draw is as follows (first named teams at home, ties to be played on June 25) - Clare vs. Down; Laois vs. Tipperary; Antrim vs. Westmeath; Louth vs. Meath; London vs. Fermanagh; Cavan vs. Longford; Wicklow vs. Sligo; Offaly vs. Monaghan.