Case for eight-team hurling league format hardens
Published 05/04/2016 | 02:30
On the morning of the last day of the 2013 Division 1A hurling league just two points separated the top team Waterford on five points from the bottom team, Galway.
All afternoon various scenarios raised their heads before disappearing again on the back of a shift at one of the three venues.
By the end Tipperary and Kilkenny had topped the group with six points, Galway had survived and Clare and Cork brought up the rear on four points.
The general consensus was that the GAA had struck gold with such a competitive format and the excitement it generated. Attempts to change it, driven by Limerick and Cork in the past, have failed on the basis that it is working well.
And for the most part that's true. Last August Central Council locked it down for another couple of years, complete with quarter-finals that give opportunities to the top four Division 1B teams to mix it with the top four Division 1A teams.
But the weekend anomalies in the hurling league have raised the spectre of possible change in the format once again.
A team that loses all five regulation games manages to put down a team that has lost just two in a relegation play-off. The fourth-placed Division 1B team, effectively the 10th best if the order of merit is strictly applied, takes a six-goal hit against the game's best.
On top of that there is the continuing trend of the relegated Division 1A team bouncing straight back up the following year, Dublin, Cork, Waterford and now Clare all dropping a division for just one season.
You have to ask what benefit it is to Offaly to lose a game like that to Kilkenny? Has the addition of quarter-finals really added anything for those mid-division teams in 1B?
Wexford might argue that their one-point defeat to Waterford on Sunday is evidence of their ability to mix it at a higher level but their record in five seasons of 1B says more, 12 defeats and one draw from 25 games with wins over Offaly and a 2013 draw with Limerick as good as it gets for them.
"Whatever format you're going to get, you're going to have anomalies arising," conceded GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail yesterday.
Finding the right structure for the hurling leagues is a constant challenge.
The six-team structure has worked well but the standards in hurling are such now that the eight-team argument is getting stronger again, Limerick and Clare quarter-final wins clearly establishing who the top eight are.
For Galway, relegation is a tough pill to swallow, former star of the 1980s Tony Keady describing it as a "slap in the face" for new manager Micheál Donoghue.
"They are down there now, and it's like going from senior down to intermediate for a club in Galway. You might be below in it for a long time," said Keady.
"But being realistic about it, it's not the end of the world. You could well see Clare and Limerick in this year's league final and they both played 1B this year," said Keady.
Keady concedes that "you can't disagree where they are now.
"When you look at it, they can hurl better than anyone for bits of matches but then they have 20-minute periods that they are only playing Division 1B hurling, maybe Division 2 at some stages. In an All-Ireland final last year and a few months later you're down in Division 1B," he pointed out.