The 85-year-old who survived the kiss of death
Despite numerous attempts to abolish the inter-pros, the competition refuses to die just yet, writes Martin Breheny
It has been battered, brow-beaten, belittled, depicted as a relic of the Flintstone era, patronised by presidents and provincial secretaries, dismissed by the director general and misrepresented by media.
But, at the age of 85, the inter-provincial championships have defied them all, thanks to player interest and a vigorous campaign by enthusiasts.
The list of opponents is long and influential. If Leinster Council secretary Michael Delaney had his way, the inter-pros would have been deleted from the schedule in the late 1990s. GAA director general Paraic Duffy answered the culling call in 2001 when, as chairman of the Games Administration Committee, he headed a group recommending their abolition.
Connacht Council secretary John Prenty has regularly used his annual report to ambush the inter-pros, while current president Christy Cooney and his predecessor Nickey Brennan would not have been upset if they were asked to script an obituary and consign the Railway Cups to the GAA museum.
It looked as if the high-powered campaign to kill off the competition would succeed last April when its fate was to be decided by Central Council. Ominously, the inter-pros hadn't been played in 2010 or 2011 and, on the run-up to the Central Council vote, it was even suggested at a Management Committee meeting that if it were decided to proceed with the competition, no funding be made available by Croke Park.
In fairness, that suggestion wasn't adopted, but its mere mention was interpreted as a signal to counties that leading figures expected a vote for abolition.
As has been the case for many years, Ulster opposed the move to remove the inter-pros. Led by president Aogan Farrell, secretary Danny Murphy and football team manager Joe Kernan, Ulster were up for a fight.
Murphy referenced how rugby had used the provinces to develop the sport and added: "The demise of the series (GAA inter-pros) is seen as progress, but it will be a loss to the GAA as we will lose the linkage to the provinces."
Kernan stressed how keen players were to represent Ulster, a view echoed by Connacht football manager John O'Mahony and John Conran, the former Leinster hurling manager.
Still, it looked as if the inter-pros would be consigned to history at a pre-Congress Central Council meeting, but it turned out to be an occasion when the previously silent majority took a stance and voted for retention.
With no obvious slot on the calendar for 2011 (late October-early November was ruled out because of the International Rules tour), it was decided to defer the inter-pros' reinstatement until this year, giving the fixture-makers time to find a suitable date.
Incredibly, they chose February-early March -- the busiest time of year -- incorporating Allianz Leagues, Sigerson and Fitzgibbon championships as well as the build-up to the U-21 provincial football championships. And when the Mayo-Dublin NFL game fell victim to fog last Saturday night, the CCCC wanted to re-fix it for today, the day before Leinster (with 10 Dublin players on the panel) and Connacht (eight Mayomen) were due to play in the inter-pro semi-finals.
It took Sean Boylan's firm response to scotch that blatant insult to the competition. However, the CCCC did fix Fermanagh v London for tomorrow, denying Ryan McCluskey the chance to feature on the Ulster panel.
Scheduling the inter-pros for this time of year makes no sense, especially when the majority of inter-county players are idle from mid-October on. Why weren't the inter-pros fixed for, say, November 4 and 11 next? A relatively small number of players would be unavailable due to provincial club championships, but it wouldn't be enough to undermine the competition. November dates would lead to greater exposure as the GAA season is confined to club action at that time of year, whereas the inter-pro finals over the next two weekends will clash with big league action.
Having unnecessarily shoe-horned the inter-pros into the busy spring schedule, it was nothing short of bizarre that the CCCC would then attempt to force Dublin and Mayo players to line out twice in 24 hours. If the reverse happened and an inter-pro game was abandoned, there is absolutely no way it would be refixed for the Saturday before a round of league games
Despite the Central Council vote last April, many senior GAA figures haven't changed their view that the inter-pros should be abandoned. Indeed, if there's a small turnout at this weekend's semi-finals, it will be trotted out as a reason why the competition should be culled.
Apply the attendance test to the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups and there's no logic in retaining them either. Of course, in practical terms, there is, since they are important competitions for weaker hurling counties, culminating in a thrilling day out in Croke Park.
Those who support the retention of the inter-pros argue the difficulties over the years have been caused by a failure to address issues as they arose, followed by a lack of imagination and will in promoting provincial rivalry.
However, they remain solid in the view that they are worth retaining.
John Conran, who managed Leinster to the hurling title in 2006, '08, and '09 and who is a selector with Derek Lyng on Joe Dooley's management team, says it's important to look at the plus points rather than the negatives.
"Players love playing for their provinces. It was like that in my playing days and it's the same now. It's especially important in hurling because, unlike footballers who can aspire to playing for Ireland in International Rules, hurlers have no outlet beyond their county teams," he said.
One wonders what Tipperary footballers make of their unavailability for Munster selection due to 'prior commitments'. Despite the fact that the inter-pro dates have been known for months, Tipp are training this weekend. At a time when Tipperary football is making progressive strides, would it not have been helpful for a few of their players to gain experience playing alongside Kerry/Cork colleagues against a Leinster team backboned by the All-Ireland champions? Besides, does Tipperary not have a responsibility to make players available for a national competition?
It's yet another scud in the direction of the inter-pros, but, at the age of 85, they have encountered far more serious attacks. What's more, they have survived them, despite the might of the many armies who have lined up against them over the last dozen years.
- Admission: Adults €10; students/senior citizens €5; U-16s free. As part of a special Leinster Council promotion for Parnell Park an adult will be admitted free to the stand if accompanied by two children.