Provinces air fears of format shake-up
THERE'S considerable scepticism at provincial council level over whether a proposal to realign the country into four regional groups of eight counties for the All-Ireland football championship would be of benefit.
Ulster chairman Aogan Farrell said he saw little merit in the idea and contends that the current format continues to serve the GAA well.
His Munster counterpart Sean Walsh said that the primacy of the provincial councils had to be maintained in the broader interests of the association. However, he would be happy to consider making the small adjustments necessary to streamline the four provincial championships into four groups of eight.
That would involve three Leinster counties and one Ulster county moving to Connacht and Munster in a 2:2 split.
"Once the provincial councils remain autonomous, the idea might be worth considering," said Walsh. "However, the provincial system works well as it stands. A lot of people are making noise about having it scrapped and going for an open draw but, in my view, that would be a serious mistake and hasn't been thought out properly.
"Changing things around so that all four provinces have the same number of participants for their football championships is different and might be worth looking at."
Farrell remains adamant that the current system remains the best available.
"I'm certainly not opposed to change, but I don't think that tampering with the current format is the right way to go. Of course, it's not perfect, but what is? The provincial system -- as we know it -- has served the GAA well and until such time as someone comes up with a format that's guaranteed to be better, it would be unwise to meddle with what we have," he said.
Tweaking the boundaries to balance all four provinces into groups of eight was suggested by GAA president Christy Cooney in his Congress address in April and was backed by Dublin CEO John Costello in his annual report this week.
Both believe that the change would have a two-fold benefit in making the provincial and, by extension, the All-Ireland championships fairer while also streamlining the fixture schedules, thus creating more room for club activity.
It could be implemented without dismantling the provincial structure.
While accepting the broad principle, Walsh fears that it might be used as a first step towards breaking up the provincial councils.
"That should not happen under any circumstances," he stressed. "Go through the balance sheets and you'll see exactly how much money funnels back to the counties from their various provincial councils. Here in Munster, we returned over €3m to our counties this year.
"Some people are calling for the scrapping of the provincial championships altogether and replacing them with an open draw system.
"If that happened, there's no way the same level of interest and revenue would accrue.
"If you go back to the first year of the qualifiers (2001) when the novelty value of counties from different provinces playing each other early on in the summer applied for the first time -- crowds were bigger than for the same type of game this year.
"Local rivalry still counts for a lot in the GAA, which is where the provincial championships score.
"I'm not the sort of person who says that, because we did something for over a hundred years, let's continue with it.
"Change and progression are good, but they have to be planned and well thought out. The suggestion about making some small adjustments to the provinces to have eight teams each is interesting but only within the provincial council system."
Farrell said that despite media questioning of the current system, he had not heard any calls for change from counties.
"They're not complaining and that surely has to be taken into consideration. In fact, if you look at the strategy plans prepared by counties, most of those who haven't won provincial titles for some time have put it high up their priority list. Once you started changing boundaries, the provincial championship wouldn't be the same."
Whether the Cooney/Costello suggestion goes any further remains to be seen but, even if it does, opposition from provincial councils is likely to be intense, amid fears that it could eventually lead to an erosion of power and, ultimately, to their dismantling.
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