Damian Lawlor: Lesser lights struggle with idea of fighting amongst themselves
Leinster hurling's round-robin set-up is far from perfect
Last Wednesday, the Leinster senior hurling and football championships were launched at Farmleigh House. With a sense of anticipation in the air, it was easy to forget that for two hurling teams, if they lose this afternoon, the summer could be over.
Imagine that? Over before the championship proper even begins. For Laois and Carlow hurlers, both of whom suffered surprising defeats last Sunday, that's the scenario. Whoever loses this afternoon is facing elimination before the end of May.
Mathematically, there might still be some hope, but it would be a faint one. The likelihood is that whoever comes out on the wrong side today will only have relegation to ponder.
Equally, whoever loses between Antrim and Westmeath could also find themselves on the brink. The intentions of both the Leinster Council and the GAA have been honourable in introducing the round-robin format but it certainly needs a closer look. For instance, what long-term benefits are being reaped from it? For the weaker counties, the game can only grow if there is a long-term structure and resources ploughed in regularly.
The system was introduced to give a flow of matches and help two counties qualify for the Leinster quarter-finals. But it was also introduced to reduce the number of counties participating in the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
The schedule has been too rushed, and there is no tangible follow-on for any of the teams that don't qualify from the group but who previously would have played in the main championship.
The reality, too, is that managers of these emerging teams are struggling to keep their best players at home. Players take a look at the fixture schedule and fear their season could be over by May 10.
In the past few years one manager had to help arrange a third-level scholarship for a player to keep him around. That involved persuading a number of colleges to come and look at him in training and match situations. Another player, from a different team, was offered a job and other benefits to go to the US. It meant that his inter-county boss had to raise €1,000 in expenses to keep that hurler at home.
This system hasn't helped the teams in it as of yet. And a key reason for this is that teams who have qualified for the provincial quarter-finals in the past have had to play up to four Sundays in a row.
"That's gone this year - there's now a break in between and that's a huge thing," says Westmeath manager Michael Ryan. "A huge plus. I think it really helps the system. Like, we got off to a good start last weekend so I'm obviously positive about the format. Maybe if we lost I'd feel different. Right now, though, we're looking to fire ahead and looking at the possibility of maybe playing five games this year."
Ryan sees the glass half-full. He had to be persuaded to take on the Westmeath job this year but says it was that prospect of up to five championship games that helped make up his mind.
"You just want to see progress," he said. "And look, with five per cent of the players there was an issue in terms of convincing them to commit. Two lads went to the footballers, another to the USA, but we are getting on with what we have and it's working great."
The break between the round robin and the Leinster quarter-final was a major problem. Being asked to go from one league into effectively another league was almost farcical considering there was no gap in the calendar.
"It was a joke," says Brian Hanley, the former Westmeath manager, who enjoyed a great spell in charge of the team. "I felt sorry in a way for the Leinster Council as they only have a certain window of opportunity to play the championship off and we simply had to fit into that. But there was no doubting that the whole system felt 'rushed'.
"We approached the job to give youth a chance and players like Niall O'Brien were given their shot and did great. You could see huge potential there and I hoped we would shove on. But has the likes of Niall been given a real shot at progressing? You are on edge between qualifying for the Leinster quarter-final and going back to the Christy Ring which would be a disaster. People forget that it was only in 2012 when we pushed Galway all the way and almost claimed a huge scalp.
"On another night when we beat Antrim in the Leinster Championship proper, Chelsea were playing the Champions League final on TV and Leinster were playing Ulster in the Heineken Cup final. We came in after our game, watched the others on TV and had a bit of grub. It was an unreal feeling for the players to be hurling in proper summertime, and also experience what a proper Leinster Championship win was like. But from there where do you go?
"In the past few seasons the whole thing was frenzied. We played three to four weeks on the trot. The Dublin footballers wouldn't cope with that. And for the Westmeath hurlers, one serious injury was like losing two or three players because the pick just wasn't there.
"It was hard to compete non-stop and unless you were winning week in, week out, you hadn't a chance, realistically. Cheddar (Plunkett) had that last year as well with Laois - they were out almost every week, it seemed. He is doing great work in that county but they needed a break more than anything to regroup."
Hanley, who is in charge of his native Athenry this season, said that when he first took charge of Westmeath it was tough to convince players to stay.
"The US was a problem in that once the players had their papers in order and could legally transfer they tended to be off on a plane rather than contemplate losing two round-robin games and being out of the championship at the start of May," he recalls.
"It took a while for us to convince them what we were about and that's why we brought in so many youngsters so that they wouldn't have their heads turned by older fellas who had maybe grown a little disillusioned with it all. You couldn't blame the lads for going over and trying things there but we had some job to get that mindset out of them.
"And I could see that John Meyler, Kevin Ryan, Cheddar, all these guys were experiencing the same frustrations in their own counties. That's why it was so galling - we knew the amount of work that was being put in and yet to achieve tangible progress, beyond league promotion or consolidation, was difficult. Looking back, you're judged upon running Galway close here and there, beating Antrim, giving Wexford a game, and that's all pretty patronising. Had the format offered a little more flexibility maybe more could be achieved. That said, I do understand the pressure the Leinster Council are under in terms of getting games played."
With Michael Ryan now in charge and off to a good start - despite losing a league final some weeks ago - a win for Westmeath today would leave them in a strong position to qualify for the quarter-final.
"I would say it's as good a system as can be there at the moment," Ryan adds. "Here's the thing - even if we win today and get four points we are still not guaranteed to reach the Leinster Championship. We could be knocked out on score difference, that has to illustrate a serious degree of competition within the system. It's how you harness that and progress it from there that matters but at least we all have a fighting chance that there is a one-week gap between fixtures this year."
There is still no denying that these minnows are outside the elite band and are something of an afterthought. Last year, for instance, John Meyler's Carlow side had to play four games in 21 days, including a trip to Ruislip. Only the weaker counties are dealt that type of hand. The irony is that while four games within a short time-frame is bad enough, the prospect of having no hurling from May onwards is even more galling.
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