Weaker GAA codes facing chop as county boards plan cutbacks
THERE are growing concerns that as income streams reduce due to the recession, hurling or football -- depending on which is the weaker in a particular county -- will be hit by severe cutbacks in the drive to cut costs.
And since hurling is the weaker code in the majority of counties, it stands to lose more in a broad swathe across Ulster and north Connacht. Already, doubts are being cast about Cavan's continued participation in the National Hurling League, while Tyrone hurlers have been branded "lazy" after another low-yield year during which they lost nine of 10 competitive games.
Cavan secretary Liam McCabe raised the possibility of Cavan withdrawing from the National League in his annual report, while Tyrone secretary Dominic McCaughey described the county's hurlers as a group who "do not wish to undertake training and lay the blame on the quality of managers/trainers."
All this comes against a background of proposals to create a fifth hurling province, comprised of weaker counties who would withdraw from the National Leagues. Instead, they would compete in extended club competitions across county boundaries in spring prior to assembling for inter-county action in the Lory Meagher Cup.
Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal, Fermanagh, Cavan, Louth and Monaghan were identified as counties who might benefit from this approac,h but, given McCaughey's depiction of the state of play in Tyrone, they too could be headed for the fifth province.
Paudie Butler, national director of hurling, sees merit in clubs from weaker counties competing against each other, but warns that if they withdraw from the National Leagues, it's vital that the money saved isn't directed towards football.
McCabe's revelation that the county board were to have a meeting with GAA president Christy Cooney and director general Paraic Duffy about the state of Cavan hurling came as a shock to the county's hurlers, who are worried about their inter-county future.
Duffy has already expressed major reservations about weaker counties competing in the National Leagues prior to heading into the Nicky Rackard or Lory Meagher Cups on the basis that it's not improving standards, while also proving very costly.
"We have an inter-county programme for these (weaker) counties that runs from January to July. That incurs significant training costs. I question the value of competition from January to March for teams in the lower divisions. It is questionable whether the current expenditure on inter-county teams in these counties is justified. For seven months, an inter-county team is being funded in counties that often have only a handful of active clubs," wrote Duffy in his annual report last April.
He supports the introduction of cross-county and cross-provincial club competitions to replace the National League in February-March with county panels then coming together to play in the Rackard or Meagher Cups.
"It would free up money for investment in measures to increase participation figures and standards in weaker counties," wrote Duffy.
Remaining outside the National Leagues would dramatically cut costs for county boards at a time when income is dropping.
However, it's significant that while supporting cross-county club competitions in weaker counties, Butler referred to the risk that money saved in hurling would be spent on football. Conversely, the same applies in strong hurling counties where savings could come at the expense of football.
It would be a major policy change for the GAA if up to a quarter of the counties did not participate in the National Hurling League. All 32 counties have competed over many years and while several have been drawing from a small playing base, it was extremely rare for a walkover to be granted.
Ironically, football didn't have a full complement for over a decade following Kilkenny's withdrawal. However, they returned a few years ago.
There's no doubt that hurling people will be concerned over any proposal which seeks to limit the number of teams competing in the National Leagues, as it will be seen as a downgrading of the game's status in weaker counties. And while county boards would never admit to diverting money saved in one sport to the dominant code, there would be a clear temptation to do so.
Wearing the county jersey remains a massive incentive for all players so the impact of depriving many of the opportunity to play in the National League could have a seriously deflating impact on the weaker game in various counties.
However, it's clear that there's a growing view that the cost of running inter-county teams is becoming so prohibitive that the season will have to be cut at lower level. It remains to be seen how the players react to that scenario, although the Cavan squad have already indicated their unhappiness that the board were discussing future participation in the league without consulting them.
On a broader front, there will be disquiet that, as the GAA heads into its 127th year in existence, there are proposals to debar players from several counties from competing in the second most important national competition.