It hasn’t been great has it? For want of a better word, without being a negative nelly, and not to put too fine a point on it, you really can’t ignore the two-tonne elephant sitting in the room. Thus far, apart one or two half decent games, the 2016 Hurling Championship has been one elongated damp squib of a summer.
As to why that is the case, you could discuss for hours. Sweepers, short puck outs, hand-passing, aimless wides. How many times have you heard any of the above buzzwords in the last few months and thought: “For the love of god, please stop”?
There is no “one size fits all” solution to hurling’s problems. And that’s not to say that everything related to the game is a problem. Not at all. The fact remains that, when played well, hurling is probably the greatest field game in the world.
But there is a negativity surrounding the game that is making it less appealing by the year. The lack of top quality, free-scoring goal fests that we were so accustomed to before is one thing. The continuous assertion of Kilkenny’s dominance over less successful/more romantic counties is another. And, for players at all levels, the increasingly frustrating championship schedule is a major cause for concern.
When a leading player, like Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan, comes out as he did last year and states that he “hates” the championship structure, then you know there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. You would think, given his county’s success, Richie wouldn’t have cause to complain but even despite the Cats’ masterly management of the system, he still has time to see the bigger picture.
The hurling championship calendar is a mess. Maybe it has always been this way and we’ve continuously ignored it, but as the demands on inter-county players increase and the frustrations of the humble club hurler continue to simmer, we are now almost at breaking point. Hogan himself admitted his own club mates can spend up to ten weeks waiting for a game during the summer, and that’s coming from one of the more organised counties. But what he may have neglected to mention in his interview, is that the solution to the championship calendar ills may come from his own doorstep.
Given the restricted demands placed on it, the Kilkenny club structure is a model of efficiency, and a perfect template for how the hurling championship system should be run. Twelve sides play in a league/championship competition devised of two groups of six. Of course, the county benefits from having under 40 clubs. The fact that other counties have many more clubs and fixtures to fulfil obviously makes it much more difficult to complete their championship in such a way. So yes, it may be true that such a system would not automatically work for some counties. But when it comes to the inter-county hurling championship, I certainly don’t see it as a valid excuse.
If you were to devise a 12-team All-Ireland hurling championship for next season, then there seems a perfectly valid method for doing so. Given the national league schedule, all of division 1A and 1B would classify themselves as, if not realistic All-Ireland contenders, certainly competitive at the level.
What may make this more appealing from a GAA perspective is that there is the possibility the provincial championships do not have to be compromised while doing so. If you have a top 12 of hurling sides, you can pretty much guarantee at least five of those will be from Munster, another five will be from Leinster with one from Connacht and a max of one other from Ulster. So what’s to stop you putting all the Leinster sides in one group of six, and all the Munster sides in another group of six, and running the provincial championships as is, whilst still keeping the respective Bob O’Keeffe and Munster cups?
Now, of course, it isn’t perfect. You may say that having five Munster counties with, say, Westmeath or Laois as a Munster championship is a bit of an anomaly or a fudge job. But can you say it’s any more or less ridiculous than having Kerry/Galway/Antrim et al playing in the Leinster championship as we currently have? Even in a two groups of six league system, the likelihood is you would still see a Galway v Kilkenny or Tipperary V Waterford final.
Here’s the outline: have 12 teams play in the championship, divided into two groups of six. Each team will get two home games with a draw to see who gets a third, not unlike the current league. The top two teams in each division enter into respective League/Provincial final. The bottom two sides from each division play against each other in relegation play-offs that can also act as the first round of the championship proper. And the middle tier teams also play in first round championship play-offs, safe in the knowledge that having acquired at least fourth place in the league, they are free from the worry of relegation.
Once the provincial finals are over and the bottom two teams have been deduced, a relegation play-off can be held. The Christy Ring Cup can still be retained to see who will be promoted to the All-Ireland championship the next season. From then on the top teams from each Munster/Leinster group will be seeded on their league position, to play against the lower-ranked teams in the quarter finals. This gives due regard to a counties’ league position, while also still giving the lower-ranked sides an opportunity to take a scalp.
The league, as it stands, is the most consistently high-quality competition we have in Gaelic games, and yet it’s given little or no merit. If it was English football, it would have the same significance as the League Cup: basically an experimental tournament for young players. So why keep it? Why hold onto it in its current format when it isn’t held up as any accurate barometer of success by an ambitious team? Rather than that, why not amalgamate the two competitions into one?
The GAA calendar should be changed. Pretty much everyone that knows anything about the club game agrees on that. And yet there are roadblocks. The suggestion at this year’s congress that the All-Ireland finals should be brought back two weeks in the calendar was met with resistance. Apparently the fact that the traditional dates are set in stone are enough cause for their retention. But what is the point of being a slave to tradition if you are killing the game at the same time?
As a report from Limerick showed last week, hordes of GAA players are flocking to the United States each summer to play games. If players had more meaningful games and a defined club championship schedule, would it stem the tide? Maybe not completely, but it would certainly give them something to think about. And that’s not taking into account the vast throngs of GAA players lost to soccer, rugby and other sports, because of a more predictable fixture schedule. As Keith Wood, ex Irish rugby international, detailed last year, it’s one of the major drawbacks for prospective players.
GAA inter-county players can train for more than nine months of year to essentially play multiple meaningless games. Too much time in the GAA is devoted to under-valued competitions such as the Walsh cup and Dr McKenna cup played on mud-riddled pitches in January. Why can’t we have a system whereby the inter-county season is run from March to the end of June and the club championships are run after that from July to November? This would mean the All-Ireland club championships are played before each year’s end and without impinging on a county’s preseason inter-county training.
With the league system proposed above, games could be held on a fortnightly basis (the football championship games could be held on the alternate weekend for instance). If you started the first round of the league on say March 4th next year, then all group league games would be concluded by April 29th. The first round of the championship/provincial finals would be held on May 13th with the final of the championship being held on June 24th. Each county would be guaranteed a minimum of six ultra-competitive league/championship games a season, with a maximum of nine, barring replays. We’ll leave the replay argument for another day.
How many club players around the country are idly training now, without any clear idea of when their next game will be? The idea of this system is to give them a defined time frame, that from July to September/October at least, and possibly longer, they will be playing. The first six months of their year can be planned around that. But at least, rather than try to plan their lives around mythical games, they would know when they’ll be playing.
Unfortunately, the powers that be seem perfectly happy to continue with the current schedule for no other reason than “We’ve always done it this way”. Maybe they reckon that as long as they get their traditional September-time bonanza, then all is well in the world. However, as long as the championship calendar is kept in its current format, the grumbling will continue.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena