The weather may not suggest it, but the hurling and football championships are just around the corner.
In late September 2017, a motion was passed by a special congress in Croke Park which would see the end of what was seen by many as a mundane and unfair hurling championship structure for a new improved round robin format. GAA Director General Paraic Duffy described the change as a “bold and brave” decision in what was an effort to lighten up both the Munster and Leinster hurling championships.
We are all familiar with the new hurling format at this stage, which provides counties with at least four championship games this summer. In theory teams being guaranteed four hurling championship matches in five weeks is a thrilling prospect for players, mentors, GAA officials and fans alike. In terms of revenue for the GAA, game time for players and the extra volume of match days for fans to enjoy, this all sounds great.
The concerns, however, lie with the inequalities that exist within the new structure.
Firstly, there is a huge disparity between the competitiveness in the Munster and Leinster championships. Trying to predict the three Munster teams that will make the cut come mid-July is similar to predicting which Kardashian will make an appearance in the news headlines next. All five teams in the southern province have a realistic chance of at least making the semi-finals this year.
Leinster, in contrast, is quite easy to predict where Kilkenny, Galway and Wexford should have a fairly routine journey to the knockout stage – bar a miraculous change in fortunes for Dublin upon the return of the Cuala contingent.
Even after the provincial championships have been run off, the Leinster teams hold a distinct advantage over their Munster counterparts. The fact that Kilkenny, Galway and Wexford can afford to lose to each other as long as they beat Dublin and Offaly means they really won’t need to go full tilt until late July. Unfortunately, the Munster outfits will not be afforded this luxury as they will have at least four or maybe five cut and thrust championship games played where injuries and fatigue mount up, with no allowance for rotation due to the competitiveness of every game.
Tipperary and especially Cork hit the jackpot when the draw was made, as the two will enjoy two homes games, one away and one neutral fixture. One could go as far as saying that Cork have been handed four home games as the rebels two “away” games consist of two trips to Semple Stadium, which many Cork hurling fans would see as the spiritual home of Cork hurling.
This is unfair on Clare (who will have to travel to Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Thurles) and on Limerick (who have to make the trip to Leeside also and Cusack Park in Ennis). Of course the championship fixtures are skewed due to Walsh Park’s inability to hold high profile championship games. This seriously damages Waterford’s chances as they are basically playing two away and two neutral games. If home advantage is to be as decisive as many expect the Deise men will find it extremely difficult to make the latter stages in Croke Park this summer.
The GAA knew this would be a problem before congress so why not schedule the experiment for the 2019 championship and give every county the same opportunity to have their grounds ready to host these games? In reality, how many Waterford fans can be expected to make the two and a half hour journey to Limerick (without traffic) for the Tipperary game? At least one of their home games should have been played in Cork which would be a short journey in comparison for the Waterford faithful.
The final concern lies with the preliminary round before the quarter final, where the third-placed teams in both groups will play one of the top two in the secondary competition, Corn Seosamh Mhic Dhonnacha (Joe McDonagh Cup). In this case the likes of Laois, who one would expect to be in the top two, will have played games against lesser opposition all summer and will then get one shot off one of the big boys, who will have played top level hurling all summer, to save their year. Without even knowing the teams who will play in the fixture we already know the outcome where this just seems a pointless exercise for both parties.
As a hurling fan, I cannot wait for May 20th, but I do enter this campaign with a huge sense of caution and uncertainty. The powers that be have got their wish but I have to wonder will the great hurling people of Ireland get what they deserve.
Ray Brennan, Pundit Arena