There’s no doubt that the Bord Gais Energy Under 21 Championship is unique. The football and hurling championships have structures in place solely to benefit each provincial winner. It’s a knock-out type championship too, which makes it all the more entertaining and nail-biting for both sets of fans.
However, even though this championship structure works for Gaelic football, sadly the same cannot be said for hurling. In football, there are more or less always going to be four strong teams to compete in the semi-final and final stage when it comes down to it after the provincials finish up. There’s the likes of Dublin in Leinster, Donegal in Ulster, Mayo in Connacht, and Kerry in Munster to name just a small few. Good, tough and exciting games are inevitable.
However, neutrals of the hurling side of things see a different perspective. Not discrediting Antrim or Ulster hurling, but some Munster and Leinster teams must feel hard done by when they see the Ulster champions consecutively competing in the All-Ireland semi-final stage.
This year, Antrim will be aiming for their eight consecutive U21 Ulster championship hurling title. A great achievement which should not be undermined, yet they never seemed to threaten anybody for the All-Ireland crown itself.
In 2014, Antrim pulled off a huge shock when they overturned the odds to beat a deluded and complacent Wexford team. That year, Antrim became the first ever Ulster side to reach the U21 hurling final. They were then dominated by Clare in the final on a scoreline of 2-28 to 0-12. Antrim were just happy to be there, and that’s not the attitude players challenging for an All-Ireland title should have.
Undoubtedly, Munster and Leinster teams in particular must feel hard done by. It’s simply unfair from their perspective. Take this year’s championship as an example, and we see the likes of Limerick, Clare and Wexford already eradicated from the entire competition. It’s a nice stat to bare in mind that Limerick and Wexford actually competed in the All-Ireland final last year.
For years previously, teams such as Cork, Waterford, Dublin and Tipperary were all on the harsh side of the scale in U21 hurling. These are big and proud hurling counties. These players train their hearts out for six months, to be sometimes knocked out in their opening game. They tune into TG4 months later and see other teams ultimately gaining automatic qualification to the semi-finals. In turn, this makes fans, players, and management question the system in play. It calls for change.
Take Galway as another example. They don’t even have to compete in the Connacht championship anymore. They’re just thrown straight into the All-Ireland semi-final stage without even playing one championship game beforehand. Each year, they get automatic qualification simply because they are in Connacht. Galway are and always will be a talented group of players, but they haven’t reached an All-Ireland final at this level since 2011. A main factor in this could be due to their lack of championship game time.
Albeit the knock-out system is as exciting as it gets, there has to be some sort of change implemented in the coming years. There’s a strong possibility that a league structure could be put in place similar to the National Hurling leagues. HQ could even divide the teams into two groups of five, with the winner of group one playing the runner up of group number two and vice versa. This would work on a points system similar to the Allianz leagues and guarantee at least four quality games for each team competing in the championship.
Another option would be to play the competition in the exact same manner as the senior Hurling championship, with a qualifier route and quarter finals. However, that’s all well and good until we consider the player’s perspective.
Many of the players involved in the two championships are 18, 19, 20 and 21. Fans of the game must realise that these players are still students and some are also playing with their senior inter-county teams. They travel to play with their club teams, they’ve part-time jobs, they play with their college teams, and they have lives to live outside of hurling. So, while there are huge calls for restructuring, the players should have the final decision on this.
For any change to take place, there will have to be a national AGM regarding the current structure in place. Players themselves need to get together from all counties and have a vote in the meantime.
Jason Redmond, Pundit Arena