Thursday 21 September 2017

Leave our boundaries alone, say provinces

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

ANY attempt to redraw provincial boundaries in order to streamline the All-Ireland football championship format would almost certainly be resisted by Ulster and Leinster, who between them account for 21 of the 32 counties.

That effectively rules out the possibility of realigning the four provinces into groups of eight, an idea which was first mooted on a formal basis by former GAA president Christy Cooney during his Congress address in April 2011 and which now features on a menu of options presented by the Football Review Committee (FRC), under the chairmanship of Eugene McGee.

As part of a wide-ranging survey on the FRC website, the GAA public are asked for preferences on the senior football championship format.

Retention

The top three choices on offer feature retention of the current system, introducing an open draw or realigning provincial boundaries so that all four regions would have eight counties.

That would require three Leinster counties (Kilkenny don't compete in the senior football championship) and one from Ulster switching to Connacht and Munster so as to bring the latter two up to eight.

That would make the football championship equitable for all counties, unlike the current arrangements where it's often possible to be crowned Connacht and Munster champions with two wins, while it can take four victories to secure the Ulster and Leinster titles.

As well as making the provincial championships fairer, four groups of eight would also make it easier for the fixture-makers to streamline the programme, thereby making more room for club activity in the summer months.

It's understood there's quite a degree of support for that option among respondents to the FRC survey, but it's unlikely to be replicated among the key decision-makers in the provinces.

A survey of the four provincial chairmen by the Irish Independent found that Ulster and Leinster were opposed to the plan, Munster would consider it, provided it didn't interfere with the core principle of the provincial structure, while Connacht are undecided.

However, since Ulster and Leinster would both lose counties under the new arrangement, their opposition is especially significant.

Ulster chairman Aogan Farrell said that their championships work extremely well at county and club grades and should not be interfered with.

"We're delighted with the way Ulster competitions are going so why change them? They're hugely successful -- indeed, they're going from strength to strength," he said.

"Apart from that, which Ulster county would be forced out of its natural hinterland? And who would have the right to do that? Just as a Mullahoran man sees himself as a Cavan man, a Cavan man sees himself as an Ulster man and the same applies right around the province. You can't change that."

On the question of the imbalance in the current system due to the different number of counties in the various provinces, Farrell is happy for it to continue.

"If you go down the fairness route, do you start changing county boundaries so that each county draws from the same number of people? Obviously, that's not on. Neither is changing provincial boundaries. I know the provincial system draws its critics, but it has stood the GAA very well over the years," he said.

Leinster chairman Martin Skelly said that since history, tradition and a sense of place were so central to the GAA ethos, tampering with county boundaries was fraught with risk. His native county Longford would almost certainly be affected by a realignment, moving west to play in the Connacht championship.

"I can see into Connacht from my house, but I could never regard myself as a Connacht man, even if Longford were playing in their championships," he said.

"I know people will say that if Longford were playing in Connacht they would have won quite a few provincial titles over the years, but it could never be the same as winning in Leinster, which is still the great target.

"I'm convinced that if you took a poll among all Longford GAA people, the vast majority would feel the same.

"On the broader front, the Leinster championships provide great competitions every year -- as do the other provincial championships -- so we'd need to be very careful about doing anything that damages them.

"The importance of the provincial structures should not be underestimated, both in terms of competition and in generating finance which is pumped back into the counties.

"I have no objection to counties playing outside their own province -- indeed, Galway and Antrim hurlers are very welcome in Leinster -- but it's different if a county is ordered out of its home provinces just to make up four groups of eight. I can't see it working."

Munster Council chairman Sean Walsh also stressed the importance of retaining the provincial system, insisting that if it were ever replaced by an open draw, it would be a disaster for the championships.

However, he would have no objection to two counties being drafted into the Munster championship.

"If that's proposed, we'll give it serious consideration. But under no circumstances can we drop the basic provincial model. Clubs and counties need the support it provides. Obviously, I know the Munster scene very well and the amount of money our championships provide for counties and clubs in enormous. More than that, it's vital," he said.

Since Munster has only six counties, a switch to four groups of eight would necessitate two Leinster counties switching south, a development which Walsh regards as unlikely.

"Which two? And would they want to do that? Provincial allegiances are very strong, and for good reason. They have stood counties well right throughout GAA history" he said.

Connacht would also have two imports (one each from Leinster and Ulster) under the amended system. Connacht chairman Frank Burke declined to comment on that possibility, stating that he would await the FRC report before drawing any conclusions.

"It's all hypothetical at present. In fairness to the review group, let's see what they come up with and then make up our minds," he said.

Irish Independent

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