No go­ing back as GAA wrests con­trol from prov­inces

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - THE TITLE - By Philip Lani­gan

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

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