Hurling is a 'cultural treasure' trapped in provincial time warp
Published 03/09/2016 | 02:30
These are both the best and worst of times for hurling.
The best because the game is being played in record numbers and gaining ground far beyond its traditional strongholds. New competitions at adult level are giving it a meaningful presence in the 'weaker' counties. Coaching standards and structures have improved beyond recognition over the last 20 years. There also seems to be a wider appreciation that hurling is more than a sport; it is, to quote Martin Fogarty - the recently appointed by the GAA as National Hurling Development Manager - "a cultural treasure".
The worst? A quick look at the All-Ireland roll of honour ahead of tomorrow's All-Ireland clash between Kilkenny and Tipperary - the fifth final between the counties in eight years - indicates that at the highest level, hurling is an exclusive club whose membership criteria are becoming more rigorous and unyielding with every passing season. Counties striving for admission to the inner sanctum should prepare for an initiation process lasting decades rather than years.
The last county to break through the ash ceiling for a first All-Ireland was Offaly in 1981. Prior to that it was Waterford in 1948 and before then it was Galway in 1923. It's 101 years since Laois annexed their sole title.
Forty three years have passed since Limerick's last senior title and 28 since Galway brought the Liam MacCarthy Cup west. Cork too are feeling the heat. After a barren decade, the talk there is of crisis and task forces to restore their fortunes.
Some hurling supporters are inclined to be stoical about it all and will argue that the cartel-like nature of the All-Ireland championship is a sporting fact of life; the 'big three' of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork - despite their current troubles - are the untouchables. Periods such as the five years between 1994 and 1998 when Offaly, Clare and Wexford managed to shut them out are freakish events that will inevitably be followed by a return to the natural order.
It's a fatalistic mind-set, though, and one that reinforces the status quo, although it has to be acknowledged that there is no quick fix to speed the journey from no-hoper to contender.
Success in hurling is a slow build. A winning mentality is decades in the making. It requires painstaking and near-fanatical perseverance, as those associated with the game in Galway, Clare, Offaly, Wexford and Waterford will testify.
Yet even Kilkenny, the undisputed giants of the ash, had to start somewhere. On their first All-Ireland appearance, in 1893, they were battered 6-8 to 0-2 by Cork. They took another hiding - 6-8 to 1-0 - from Tipperary in the 1895 decider, lost to Limerick by a goal in 1897 and were beaten 15 points by Tipp in 1898.
Lesser men might have called it quits, but they stuck at it and at it and cracked the code when beating Cork by a point in 1904. Six more titles followed within a decade and an unbreakable dynasty was created. Cork and Tipp had already won six All- Irelands apiece by 1904 and so the 'big three' were born. As the years passed, they ruthlessly expanded on the head-start gained during those first two decades of the championship.
The emerging triumvirate were aided no end by structures which have changed little since the first Leinster and Munster titles were contested in 1888.
The winner takes-all, knock-out format remained cast in stone until a second chance for beaten provincial finalists was introduced in 1997, followed in 2002 by the prototype of the current qualifiers system, which guarantees every team competing in the All-Ireland championship at least two games.
It doesn't amount to a whole lot of evolution over 128 years, but there is stern resistance within GAA officialdom to replacing the provincial championships with a league-based championship structure - followed by a knock-out series leading to the championship final - that would guarantee every top-tier hurling county four or five games over the summer months. It's the type of format that's the norm of team sports across the world.
Yet hurling - for reasons of geography, sentiment and the short-term financial priorities of county boards and provincial councils - remains shackled in a structural time warp that's at odds with its embrace of corporate sponsorship and pay-per-view on Sky.
As it stands, the status quo favours the powerful. It chokes the possibility of counties such as Westmeath, Antrim and Kerry experiencing the number of top-class games - year-on-year, decade-on-decade - that they need to build a winning tradition and, who knows, eventually even win an All-Ireland title.
Change can be painful and risky, but what would the hurling championship have to lose from experimenting with a league-based championship structure for a two- or three-year trial period?
What's the worst that can happen?
Ronnie Bellew is the co-author with Dermot Crowe of 'Hell For Leather: A Journey Through Hurling in 100 Games'