Time for change: Gaelic games needs its underdogs to show some bite
The last All-Ireland hurling final without Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary was in 1996. In football, it’s a similar story of a small group dominating. Martin Breheny explains why Gaelic games needs its underdogs to show some bite if GAA is to avoid playing second fiddle this summer
SO where's the first real shock of the 2012 championships to come from?
The sooner it arrives, the better, because there is an urgent need for underdogs to start sinking their teeth into favourites' legs, drawing some blood and generally behaving as if they have no respect for hierarchy.
That, more than anything else, would electrify the championships, make turnstiles whirr and ensure that football and hurling vigorously defend their profiles against strong opposition from major international events such as Euro 2012 and the Olympic Games.
Both championships would benefit from a season when Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork hurlers are not in Croke Park in early September and when football stages an All-Ireland final without Kerry, Cork or Tyrone.
Limerick v Wexford in 1996 was the last All-Ireland hurling final without any of hurling's 'Big 3', while Galway v Meath in 2001 was the last football final without a Kerry, Cork or Tyrone involvement. Nothing personal folks, but a change would be good.
Unfortunately, there's little sign that a radical changing of the guard is imminent.
The successful counties tend to get upset by a suggestion that the big occasions would benefit from new participants, which is understandable.
Of course it's not meant as a slight on them -- on the contrary, they are to be applauded for their consistently high standards -- but history shows that the more contenders there are for the big prizes, the greater the public interest.
Kilkenny and Tipperary produced three fascinating hurling finals from 2009-11 but in terms of broadening the game's appeal, it can't compare with the Clare-Wexford re-emergence in 1995 and '96.
Clare returned for a second helping in '97, while Offaly triumphed in '94 and '98, extending to five years the period in which Liam MacCarthy did not visit Cork, Kilkenny or Tipperary.
By the time Cork and Kilkenny fought out their first All-Ireland final for seven years in '99, there was something of a novelty value to the event.
Since then, Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary have shared the 13 titles between them in an 8-3-2 split, making it the longest period of dominance by the 'Big 3' in the history of the hurling championship.
And, unless some underdog sharpens its fangs pretty quickly, it looks certain that the All-Ireland title will remain in familiar territory again this year.
In terms of competitiveness, it's disturbing that Kilkenny (8/11) and Tipperary (11/4) are priced so far ahead of the rest of the field in the All-Ireland betting -- Cork and Galway are next at 9/1.
For, while Kilkenny and Tipperary may well continue to produce excellent All-Ireland finals, the championship is about more than the decider.
It's about anticipation, variety, surprise results and a tingling feeling of unpredictability among the public as they head to a venue on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday evening.
Sadly, there are far too few occasions which produce uncertainty. A check on the betting on games over the coming weeks underlines that point. Managers always dismiss odds as irrelevant but the reality is that they are compiled on hard-nosed business principles, where accuracy is essential.
Pairings such as last Sunday's Longford-Laois Leinster SFC clash, when the sides were priced extremely close to each other, are depressingly rare and do nothing to widen the appeal of games beyond the counties involved.
Take tomorrow's double-header in Thurles. Kerry footballers are 1/50 favourites to beat Tipperary (14/1), while Tipperary hurlers are 1/6 to beat Limerick (9/2).
Effectively, the markets are saying that Tipperary footballers have absolutely no chance of beating Kerry and that Tipperary hurlers would need to suffer a serious power failure to lose to Limerick.
And so it goes over the next few weekends. Dublin footballers are 1/9 to beat Louth (9/2) tomorrow week; Dublin hurlers are 1/20 to beat Laois (8/1) next Saturday; Galway footballers are 1/5 to beat Sligo (9/2); Kildare are 1/14 to beat Offaly (8/1); Galway hurlers are 1/50 to beat Westmeath (10/1).
The one-sided betting will ease out somewhat as the summer progresses but there will still be relatively few games where the odds are pretty even.
That's not to say that there won't be upsets and some close games but there's no doubt that the trend is towards more power being concentrated in the hands of fewer counties.
A glance at this year's pre-championship betting lists compared with the equivalent 10 years ago (see table) shows that the odds against many counties winning the All-Ireland have lengthened considerably over the decade.
In football, 21 counties had longer All-Ireland odds this year than in 2002; 10 were shorter while two remained the same. The situation is even more alarming in hurling where all except Tipperary, Kilkenny and Dublin are priced longer for this year's All-Ireland than in '02. Among the big drifters are Wexford (25/1 to 225/1), Offaly (20/1 to 100/1), Clare (10/1 to 25/1) and Limerick (10/1 to 33/1).
There's no easy answer to how standards can be evened out among counties in either hurling or football. Strong and weak will always exist but it has to be a source of real worry in hurling that the likes of Wexford, Limerick, Clare and Offaly are no longer regarded as genuine All-Ireland contenders.
Clearly, it's up to counties in both codes to raise their standards to those set by the market leaders, but events over recent seasons suggest that the gap between the elite and the rest is widening.
That's not good for the championship and certainly not in a season when the GAA are in tough competition with international sports for public attention.