CLEAR SKIES AS HURLING HEADS INTO NEW ERA
No going back as GAA wrests control from provinces
PADDY JOE RYAN’S headline contribution to Special Congress had all the subtlety of a Trump tweet.
‘The worst decision in the history of the Association’ is how the Waterford chairman tried to label any move to back a new round-robin format for the Munster and Leinster hurling championship from 2018 on; a statement which had a ‘fake news’ ring to it.
Especially when the board official revealed that he hadn’t examined the other three alternatives on the table before the vote took place on the most radical change ever to the All-Ireland hurling championship.
Worst decision? How about booking Jedward as the headline act at the two-day Rhythmfest fundraiser in Fraher Field back in 2012. The meagre ticket sales for that only added to the Waterford county board’s financial woes at the time.
That Congress contribution captured how divorced the views of officialdom can be from those on the ground.
Waterford senior hurling manager Derek McGrath is one of the most interesting minds in the game right now. Here is what he had to say about the prospect of a round-robin back in March:
‘If you had the Championship-like fervour attached to the League section-cum-Championship at the right time of the year, I think it would revolutionise the whole thing. I really do.’
Ryan’s contribution didn’t sway the vote, the new format just squeezing past the required 60 per cent with two per cent to spare.
Waterford’s vote against a roundrobin format in Munster and Leinster − one that would grant them two money-spinning home games with all the promotional value attached − flows from the fact that Walsh Park isn’t currently fit for purpose to host a high-profile senior championship match. After a safety review held last year, the capacity was revised down to roughly 12,000.
But a reluctance to redevelop amounts to looking at a problem the wrong way.
Build it and they will come. Never has a phrase seemed more fitting.
With Waterford the only county in the top tier of 10 behind the eightball in terms of venue, the move towards a group stage format should embolden them to dream big – and receive the necessary funding from Croke Park to make it happen, given that the new format is the most radical move away from knock-out championship in the 130-year history of the competition.
The plan is no knee-jerk reaction to football’s Super 8s. Back in April 2013, this newspaper outlined an almost identical plan, complete with a third group featuring second tier teams and a timetable of club weekends slotted in.
That was based on the model put forward by Tommy Lanigan’s Hurling Development Committee in 2012.
The vote at Congress in February for a Super 8s format for the top eight teams left in the All-Ireland football series from 2018-2020 emboldened hurling to bring change that has been long flagged – and championed in these pages.
‘There is the realisation that, with a bit of vision, we could turn this into something absolutely brilliant. Transform the hurling summer.’
That was current HDC chairman Paudie O’Neill in the Mail back in April.
And there is no going back, as director general Paraic Duffy hinted straight after Congress at Croke Park on Saturday: ‘I’d be surprised if it’s the [old] status quo,’ he said about any future review of the three-year trial. ‘I think it might be something different.’
In fact, it is only likely to embolden hurling’s main stakeholders into even bolder change. The obvious next step in 2020 is to ditch the provincial straightjacket altogether and jumble the top 10 counties into an open draw.
Seed the provincial or group winners year-on-year so they are kept apart and their title-winning achievement recognised (the Galway players’ motivation to win Leinster has little to do with lifting the Bob O’Keeffe Cup, as the players have already documented).
Imagine the excitement of a draw that could pitch Kilkenny against Tipperary in the very first round? That could feature Kilkenny, Clare, Waterford, Offaly and Galway in one group and Tipperary, Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Wexford in another?
Fanciful? Hardly. The 2013 Hurler of the Year Tony Kelly has already called for the Munster championship to be abolished back in March.
‘Personally I wouldn’t have an objection if they did get rid of the Munster championship and had an all-out proper All-Ireland series run off, with everyone in it.’
That’s effectively what that jumbled 10-team competition – split in two – would be.
The Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups are already based on standing, irrespective of provincial placings.
Here’s Derek McGrath echoing Kelly’s radical call to slay the once sacred cow of the knock-out Munster championship when he spoke a couple of weeks later. ‘I have to be honest in that, I would… I’d mix the teams.’
Just as the original back-door qualifier system in 1997 offered counties a second chance for the first time, next year’s format will form a bridge to further change.
Because it establishes certain key principles.
For a start, it dilutes the power of the provincial councils − the GAA has effectively taken ownership of the All-Ireland competition from start to end, not just from the quarter-final stage on.
It breaks the logic-defying convention of training for the guts of nine months for one do-or-die provincial game – and possibly just one more back door game.
It breaks the tradition of long gaps between games in a lopsided provincial system − Waterford had an 11-week hiatus between League and this year’s Munster semi-final against Cork who had a momentumbuilding Championship victory over Tipperary four weeks earlier.
It introduces the potential of a limited number of key games between neighbouring counties being staged on a Friday night – Clare-Limerick and Kilkenny-Wexford two obvious examples.
Imagine the promotional value attached to such fixtures?
It improves the games-to-training ratio which is madly out of skew.
It justifies the call by the Club Players Association for an integrated master calendar (where competitions in different codes aren’t just tweaked in isolation). The main problem for Croke Park is that the hurling and football Championships are now underpinned by opposing principles – the hurling frontloaded with fixtures, giving every county a similar number of games; the football backended giving only the top eight counties extra games – at a later time in the year when the pressure is most on clubs
The plan is no knee-jerk reaction to football’s Super 8s
This breaks the convention of training for nine months for just one game
to find a window to play off their main schedule of local championships.
There is no doubting the fixtures dilemma faced by dual counties.
And it brings the players to the people. The new Páirc Uí Chaoimh will bear witness to the blossoming talent of Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon, Shane Kingston and company. Cusack Park in Ennis to the sublime talent of Kelly. Wexford Park to local hero Lee Chin who produced a performance of comic-book proportion against Kilkenny at the same venue earlier this summer.
That one of the hurlers of his generation, Joe Canning, has only played two of his 47 Championship games in front of a home crowd in Pearse Stadium says much about the previous system’s failings.
There is no going back.
GOING HOME: Joe Canning celebrates with the Liam MacCarthy Cup in September