The word in ‘elite’ is a contentious one in GAA circles. In a culture that is correctly labelled elitist on many occasions, the GAA have made two big changes to the hurling and football championship structures for 2018, and both changes have failed to rid GAA of that elitist tag.
Like anything, change will have its critics and its craves. The Super 8s in football was deemed to be elitist by so many, as a means of assisting the top teams and dimming any prospect of a fairytale one-off upset. It is a justified view, but the hurling changes must be deemed more appropriate and more likely to create a more level playing field.
The current change is also perceived to be changing very little to the much-publicised club GAA scene. April has been dubbed a ‘club-only’ month with certain counties already stating that they will not be upholding the directive.
Regardless of how much the situation will change, the matter-of-fact is that the intercounty scene will look a lot different next year. Of course, there will be teething problems starting out, but the change will prove to be a positive thing, especially in hurling.
A lot of Irish people, whether they are true GAA people or not, live for the cut and thrust of the championship in the summer months in Thurles, Clones, Wexford Park or wherever. But there cannot be any doubting that the products that are the GAA championships have been regressing of late.
The number of high-quality games have been in single figures in both hurling and football and change was needed. The move to a round-robin series may not suit everyone, but it does suit a lot of people, and at the end of the day, it will suit the people that put the most effort into creating the product that is the GAA; the players, the coaches and the managers.
What makes many laugh is how ‘counties’ vote against certain proposals at Congress, but rarely do we ever know or hear who these ‘counties’ are made up of when it comes to voting. And when we hear players, coaches and managers voice their concerns, it is hard to see how heavily they are consulted on such changes.
It will be thrown back at them, that they can attend county board or club delegate meetings, but opinions like that show that there is certain need for a move towards elitism in certain GAA circles, and the fact that a ‘Special Congress’ was created to introduce a new hurling championship was definitely a step in the right direction.
There was no need for the ‘Congress card’ to be played, it was a basic case of, it is time for change, this is what we are offering, do you want it or not, vote yes or vote no. And despite some brief objections, a change was made that should correctly change the persona and the perception of hurlers.
People love calling hurling, ‘the greatest game in the world’. A lot of these people will also laugh at the Irish rugby team for winning ‘friendlies’ or ‘challenge matches’ in November.
Hurling is a great game, but a deeper look at hurling under the old format shows that many teams can win its primary competition by winning four matches in four months.
Academic papers and analysts often try to compare hurling test results, distances covered, top speeds, to those who play in professional sports. In reality, how can stats from a player who may play four games in four months compare to someone who could play 20, or even up to 50 in other sports?
While an All-Ireland title can never be taken for granted, an average of one game a month is pretty laughable when compared to other codes.
And the new structures will change from four games in four months, for some, to four games in one month for most, and that is before any knock-out games will have been played. And what this does is makes hurling a more elite sport.
All GAA players claim that they train as hard as any professionals. There is no doubt that an extortionate amount of time goes into preparing teams from all involved, and now this is been rewarded by firstly, not having to wait around for matches and secondly, improving the status of hurling as a sport.
Games will be coming thick and fast and many managers and players have already spoken about the importance of squads and rotation. These are terms associated with sports at the top level. The 38 games in Premier League with cup competitions added in, the 82 regular season games in the NBA; yes these are professional sports with full-time athletes, but now hurling is moving a step closer towards being more comparable to them.
Possibly the most positive move of all in the new hurling championship is the introduction of home and away matches. The term ‘fortress’ can now be associated to locations such as Walsh Park in Waterford, Pearse Stadium in Galway, Cusack Park in Ennis, locations that hardly ever see championship hurling, and will now have the opportunity to be packed out on at least two occasions each summer.
All of this will create more publicity and more positive publicity for hurling.
What is certain, is that any All-Ireland title will now be earned. Even though it does not exist, nobody will be able to use the term ‘soft All-Ireland’ anymore. Hurling’s new format will create elitism, but the elitism will not deter what has happened in the past.
It will simply mean clubs won’t have access to players as they will be playing competitive games as opposed to taking part in the ludicrous training: match ratio that GAA has created over the years.
The new format is simple; games, games, games. And this is all that anybody properly involved in the GAA wants.
More matches mean more coverage, more talk, more debate, more analysis, more praise, more criticism. More matches mean that hurlers will now truly earn their dues and enter into more comparable conversations with other elite athletes.
The hurling changes will create a more elite sport, but no need to panic anti-elitists, if done so correctly, it will improve the game for all involved.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena