Like car clampers, tax collectors, and politicians, there are few professions that gather more opprobrium than that of GAA administrators. Those faceless pen pushers up in Croke Park, remain hidden away from the public the majority of the time, except to come down and rain on our parade every now and then. But sometimes even we have to put our hands up and say “well done lads ” Occasionally, even the most ardent GAA admin sceptic needs to admit “Fair f*cks, in fairness”
The new hurling championship structure is one of those occasions. From 2018 the top 10 hurling counties will be split into two groups of 5, one group in Leinster, one group in Munster, playing 4 games each summer, 2 at home, with another 2 away. The top 2 teams from each group will play off in a provincial final, with the winner advancing to an All-Ireland semi-final. The provincial final loser will face a quarter final game, while the third place team from the group will potentially join them there. It’s a radical change for the game, and will guarantee more top class hurling matches come summertime from now on.
Obviously though, as with any decision in the GAA, this revamp wasn’t met with universal approval. The Waterford county board delegate at the special congress was one of those to speak out, presenting the usual doomsday scenario that this “could ruin the GAA” He did also say that he hadn’t read the proposals fully which did undermine his argument somewhat (i.e. completely). The main bone of contention seemed to be that the increased number of inter-county games would lead to decreased times for clubs. The major flaw in that argument though is that by instigating the change to put the All-Ireland finals back a month into August, the GAA are actually increasing the amount of time available to clubs. So rather than being less time for club games, there’s actually more. It’s just a more clearly defined, condensed schedule. There’s a lot more certainty now about when the counties are going to play their games.
The former Wexford All-Ireland winner, Tom Dempsey, was another one to rail against the proposals. In an interview with RTE (https://www.rte.ie/sport/gaa/2017/1003/909505-tom-dempsey-crowds-may-drop-once-games-arent-knockout/) he mentioned how the increased number of games could lead to a decrease in the numbers of people through the gates, and how, once you beat Kilkenny in the Leinster Championship “you don’t want to see them again”
Well, I know there’s the worry that you may have to beat a team twice to eliminate them from the provincial championship, but under the old system, a team still had to be beaten twice to be eliminated from the championship proper, so I don’t see the fact that those games may take place in the province now as a major concern. Indeed, Wexford could actually eliminate Kilkenny from the All-Ireland next year, without the Noresiders having played a game outside the province.
Just envisage a scenario where in the final round of Leinster games, the Cats are desperately trying to secure that coveted third place spot to secure a place in the knockout stages. The only way they could do so though, is by travelling down to Wexford to secure a victory. Would that not generate excitement? I can guarantee there would be a big crowd in Wexford Park to see that.
There’s also the fact that, as distinct from practically every other year of the Championship, now all teams have the opportunity to have more home games. One of the reasons why the Wexford Kilkenny Leinster semi-final was such a great occasion this year is that it took place IN Wexford Park. Years ago, that game would have been in a half empty Croker and the atmosphere would have been lost. But now all teams, even Galway in Leinster, will have at least two home games. For the first time in yonks, the likes of Clare and Waterford have the opportunity to play games at home in the Munster Championship. It seems ridiculous that Tom would deem such a scenario to be a bad thing.
The one major concern I had about this possible restructure, is that it would leave the likes of Kerry, Laois and Westmeath in the lurch. These are the counties who have been trying manfully to break into the GAA’s elite in the last few years, but a decision to reduce the championship to just ten teams, could potentially have undone all of that. Ingeniously enough though, the GAA have decided to give the lesser lights a break. There will be a six team group containing Antrim, Meath, Carlow and the aforementioned three sides, that will be played simultaneously as the two groups of five.
The top two teams from this group then have the opportunity to play off against the third place teams from the top group in order to see who will play in the quarter final against the provincial runners up. Now, given the disparity between the respective tiers, it seems unlikely that the sides from the second tier group will be able to defeat the third place sides from the top tier, but at least they’ve a chance. And at least they’ve some sort of recognition that the GAA hasn’t forgotten about them.
Allied to this Galway have been given a major boost at underage level by their introduction into the Leinster Championship as well as some Ulster teams. So rather than having those lopsided provincial hurling competitions we are so used to, we now have an altogether more equitable situation.
To my untrained eyes, there’s very little I can actually see wrong with these changes. What’s appeared to have happened here is that the GAA has taken a look at the league structure that’s been in place for the last few years, and tried to replicate such an arrangement in the championship. And why wouldn’t they? We’ve known for years, in hurling and in football, that the League is where most of the top quality action takes place. There’s none of this “waiting around five weeks to have a game”. It’s pretty much intense, fiercely competitive games on a weekly or fortnightly basis, from the off, with an invariably thrilling climax at the end of it. Now we have a similar scenario in the Championship. And for those who say these games will lack the cut and thrust of knock out action, they obviously haven’t been paying attention to the cut throat nature of Division 1A of the league over the past few years.
It’s refreshing to finally see a championship structure where logic and sense prevails. If the proposals succeed, which I hope and expect they will, we could have a highly competitive, high functioning championship for years. More games for players, more revenue at the turnstiles, what’s not to like? I’m complimenting the GAA authorities so much here I may need to check my temperature. I’m sure I’ll find something to complain about soon enough, but for the moment at least, I’m prepared to throw all the garlands at their feet. So, until the next time they annoy us, well done lads.