Cause for cautious optimism on hurling reform
The GAA special congress in Croke Park today will be a multilayered event. Ostensibly convened to consider ways of improving the hurling championship, it can end up having a far more profound effect on the big issue of the day – the hitherto untameable fixtures monster.
Put simply, if the Central Council proposal – more or less accepted as the one with the best prospects of success – is successful, the hurling calendar can be slotted in with the experimental football format for a three-year trial period.
Whereas there are obvious concerns about how these structures will work, they are, after all, just experiments, and there is at least a parallel interest in freeing additional weekends for club activities.
Aggregated, the various reforms of recent years – rationalising under-age grades, reducing replays and so on – can produce a 50 per cent increase in intercounty-free weekends between 2016 and 2018, from 16 to 23 or 24.
Small trimmings as well as big cuts can facilitate this further: eliminating All-Ireland under-21 semi-finals by taking Ulster and Galway into Leinster and All-Ireland club quarter-finals by bringing the British clubs into Connacht.
The competing proposals from Cork, Tipperary and Dublin aren’t expected to attract greater support than Central Council’s, but there’s no guarantee that any of them will be accepted, even allowing for the newly lowered bar for changing rules, which was taken down from two-thirds to 60 per cent at last February’s congress.
Central Council’s motion isn’t merely about shifting around the furniture. It has a philosophical thrust in wanting to provide more competitive fixtures in the championship calendar.
The vehicle for this, round robins in both the Leinster and Munster championships, isn’t guaranteed roadworthy as the format relies on parity of standards and engaging a hitherto sceptical public about the merits of being weaned off knock-out competitions. There have, however, been sufficient signs of life in both Leinster, unusually, and Munster to convince the framers of the Central Council motion that the structure can work.
Nor is it entirely a matter for the traditional hurling counties, many of whom oppose the plans, as the provision of more fixtures and greater calendar certainty for those graded in the Ring and Rackard Cups has relevance to many football counties.
It seems harmless but there is considerable alarm among officials that the Central Council motion could be accepted and then a couple of emotive speeches later, an amendment that would, in one estimate, add three weekends to the championship thrown in to compromise any progress.
Will the proposal succeed? Even its advocates aren’t sure but there is a sturdy optimism that it may just edge into positive territory.
There are obvious concerns about how the structures will work