Well, that was quiet, wasn’t it? The May Bank Holiday weekend, the first official Sunday of the Summer and yet nobody was going to any inter-county games. Apart from the All-Ireland Under 21 football final which was held on the Saturday, everyone seemed more caught up in the Premier League or Joshua/Klitschko than anything that was happening on any GAA field. Was it not peculiar that not one All Ireland championship game was being played across the country on Sunday…what? Hold on a second. What do you mean…. there was?

For those of you who didn’t realize, and considering the lack of coverage, it’s entirely forgivable, the hurling championship has already kicked off. In fact, the second round of the Leinster Championship round robin took place last Sunday as Kerry defeated Westmeath in Cusack Park, Mullingar and Laois defeated Meath in Navan.

Now there’s a few points to make about this. First of all-yes, it is faintly ridiculous that we still call it the Leinster Championship. I mean, Kerry faced off on Sunday in Westmeath, and they will be joined in the competition by Galway in a few weeks’ time. Antrim have played there, so that’s representation from all 4 provinces in modern times in “Leinster”. So, yes, it’s not really the Leinster Championship at all. It’s just not the Munster one. And just in case you’re wondering, Kerry were playing away last week, but they’ll play at home next week, unlike Galway who play away all the time but…we’ll get back to that…

The other factor of this conversation is perhaps a more pertinent one. I mean, sure, yes, there were championship games at the weekend, but unless you were a hardcore GAA fan, you wouldn’t have realized they were actually on. There was no Sunday Game coverage, and little other attention in the mainstream media. In a sense, to the broader public, the likes of Westmeath, Meath, Kerry and Laois hurlers simply don’t exist.

So, should we be concerned about this? Well, it was a subject of conversation on Newstalk’s Off The Ball last Monday. Now there definitely WAS some attention given to hurling last week, but it was mainly wrapped up in the Galway Tipperary National League final. The championship, the supposedly blue riband competition, was pretty much ignored. Purely because, I guess, the teams who were playing in those championship games are much less likely to be climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand in September than Galway and Tipperary.

Then again, you could argue that this is the same in most sports. The elite level sporting events will always attract most followers. I mean, how many column inches are dedicated to the Championship in England compared to the Premier League? Who watches the AIL in Ireland now, rather than the Pro 12 or Champions Cup? The standard of hurler was higher in the league final than in Cusack Park and Pairc Tailteann, so even though, paradoxically, the game was less competitive, it still attracted more interest.

What’s to be done with the weaker counties? It’s a question that gets asked year on year, but while the GAA works at keeping hurling alive in the traditional hurling strongholds, the idea of looking beyond those boundaries is hardly broached. The current league system is reasonably effective, but there are effectively, tiers within tiers. Certainly, in Division 1B, there were 3 teams battling for promotion this year, while 3 more were doing their upmost to avoid relegation. That tells you all you need to know about hurling and counties priorities. Some places demand success. Others just want to survive.

The introduction of the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher cups were great ideas and gave weaker counties some silverware to strive for, but they haven’t helped close the gap between the top tier and the chasing pack. At this moment in time we are seeing around 9 counties playing hurling at an elite level, while others are trying not to fall off a cliff.

Laois haven’t reached a Leinster final since 1985 and are as far away now from doing so as any time during that period. Offaly have regressed massively since their 80’s-90’s heyday. Antrim peaked by reaching the All-Ireland final in 1989 but have declined a lot in the interim. In the same province, Down and Derry have been undergoing a downturn for some time. As a consequence, it’s very hard to imagine an Ulster side reaching, never mind winning an All-Ireland title in our lifetime.

The Ulster senior hurling championship has already been run off with Antrim winning it easily again, but it’s obvious that interest in the competition has all but disintegrated. Something radical needs to be done to regenerate enthusiasm for hurling in the province, as it’s clear the current situation isn’t working.

Perhaps the introduction of a “Team Ulster” would breathe life into hurling in the North. That idea has been mooted recently by ex-Antrim hurler and current Meath selector Micky McCulloch. Certainly, if you could persuade players to travel from Down, Armagh and Derry etc to training in Belfast, it may prove viable. Such commutes are less than current hurlers from Kilkenny and Tipperary working in Dublin are already facing. But would county boards approve it? And, if you were to introduce such a system, why would you stop there?

It looks very unlikely that the likes of Meath, Westmeath, Kildare or Wicklow will make a hurling breakthrough in Leinster during our lifetime. Even the return to prominence of Laois or Offaly seems far-fetched enough. But what if the GAA were to revolutionize the idea of hurling in these counties, by introducing a form of amalgamated teams?

Sure, it’s extremely hard to see Westmeath or Meath winning a hurling trophy beyond the Christy Ring Cup, but what if those two counties joined forces? Or if there was a combined Wicklow/Kildare/Carlow team? Or Laois/Offaly? Obviously, such an idea may appear preposterous, but geographically at least, it’s very possible. I mean, it’s far easier for a Laois or Offaly player to commute to training in the opposing county, than it is for a player living in the depths of West Cork to make county training in the city. And if those county boards were forward thinking enough to realize that such a compromise could boost the profile of hurling in their county, why wouldn’t they be willing to give the idea of it a chance?

Of course, even suggesting such a scenario is risking opprobrium from different angles. County boards have never been known for their foresight or co-operation with other counties. There’s also the factor, that a Westmeath player will have more difficulty getting onto a combined Westmeath/Meath team than one in his own county. Then you have the existing rivalries between the counties themselves that players/officials/supporters may be struggling to overlook. But would those individuals be willing to put aside their own personal concerns for the success of the group? Because, hurling as they are in their present environment, they are highly unlikely to get mass exposure. But playing for a stronger combined force they very well might.

The simple fact of the matter is that in a majority of counties in Leinster, hurling is seen as a second-class sport. Meath, Carlow, Westmeath and Kildare are all predominantly footballing counties, and Wicklow doesn’t have much of a tradition in either code. In Kerry the disparity between interest for the county footballers and hurlers is even more pronounced. So, the likelihood of convincing the public at large to generate interest in a team, when the county’s own board has little or no interest themselves, seems unlikely.

Hurlers in weaker areas are encountering disinterest from within their own counties, before they even think of the general public at large. Certainly, when we prioritize the supposed secondary competition over the supposed first, just because of the force of the teams playing in it, it’s obvious hurling minnows will always be facing a losing battle. Take a county like Westmeath or Laois, with a smaller population base than Tipperary or Galway, and try fielding a competitive hurling and football team at the same time. It simply does not work. Sure, Offaly managed it from the 70’s to 90’s, but given the county’s current demise in both codes, that feat seems more miraculous by the year.

Of course, it’s very hard to see the idea of amalgamated hurling counties happening in our lifetime. Logistically at least, Westmeath/Meath/Laois/Carlow/Offaly etc, are all more likely to prefer retaining the status quo than undertaking such upheaval. But, in doing so, those counties must realize, that with a small playing base and without a defined plan for the games development, they will almost never be able to reach beyond a certain level. Something radical may revolutionize the status of hurling in those counties and increase their chances of success. Would people in those counties be willing to do so? It may be worth a shot. Otherwise, it seems likely they will always be confined to the Hurling margins.

Sportstalk Writer Mark Townsend


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