Monday 21 August 2017

GPA’s misgivings about timing of hurling championship reform plans are well-founded

Dermot Earley, CEO of the GPA. Photo: Sportsfile
Dermot Earley, CEO of the GPA. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's something of an irony that an organisation whose officialdom has often stood accused of being allergic to change is now being urged to slow down by its players.

The tardiness charges were never strictly true - and certainly not over the last 20 years, when the GAA underwent more changes than any other sporting organisation. Still, perceptions can be difficult to shake off.

GAA competition formats have had several overhauls, the latest being the decision taken at Congress last February to replace the All-Ireland football quarter-finals with a round robin from 2018 on.

The sequence of events after that reform has now prompted the GPA, as articulated by CEO Dermot Earley, to urge Central Council not to make a final call at their meeting on Saturday on whether to move proposals for the most radical All-Ireland hurling championship restructuring in history to the next stage.

If delegates back the concept of playing the Munster and Leinster championship in round-robin format, a Special Congress will be held in August/September, with a view to introducing the new system next year.

The GPA want to delay the process to give more time for players to consider the proposals. And while there are a whole lot more stakeholders whose opinions count too, the players' body has a point.

This is Championship time when all counties are still involved in very busy schedules. National administrative affairs - even those as important as the format of the All-Ireland series - don't engage county boards, and definitely not players, to anything like the same degree as in the down season.

Taking a big decision against that background is fraught with risk, not least that it might be regretted later on.

The implications from the proposed changes are significant. The Munster and Leinster championships effectively become five-team league competitions, with the top two contesting the finals. The third-placed teams would also remain in contention for the All-Ireland title, via the quarter-finals.

If the provincial championships are run off on a round-robin basis, would it have a negative impact on the Allianz League, which is very competitive in its current format?

Would the public warm to the provincial championship played in league form? Would there be some meaningless games in the final rounds?

Is it fair on Leinster that, with Galway aboard on a permanent basis, only four of their own counties would be guaranteed participation?

With Kilkenny, Galway, Dublin and Wexford the top four in Leinster at present, it leaves only one place for the rest, including Offaly and Laois.

A qualifier group (Laois, Westmeath, Kerry, Antrim, Carlow in 2018) would also play off in round-robin format, with the winners going into a preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final, as well as joining the Leinster Championship in the following year. The bottom team in the Leinster round robin would drop into the qualifying group in 2019.

The prospect of all counties having two home games every year has its attraction but can't be allowed to become too influential in deciding whether such a fundamental change as turning the early stages of the Championship into a league is a good idea.

Of course, one key question arises: is the change necessary at all, and would it even be contemplated if the football round robin hadn't been accepted?

It sparked murmurs of discontent in the small ball world that the extra football games would seriously reduce hurling's profile because the numerical imbalance in games. Granted, that's an issue but there's already a big difference in the number of football and hurling games.

A competition structure should reflect the needs of the contestants and not be influenced by what's happening in another sport, albeit one under the same organisational umbrella.

All the Munster counties and the top Leinster counties, including their Galway guests, stand to benefit from a round-robin provincial format as they would have two home games.

That creates a danger that finance influences how counties vote, which is hardly the best way to reach an important decision.

In addition, more than half the counties have no direct interest, since they won't be competing in the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier. Despite that, they will have an equal say as those who are.

Plenty of opinions are usually tossed around when major proposals are on the agenda but other than the GPA intervention and media comment, there has been relatively little said about the hurling plan.

That suggests either a serious outbreak of apathy or a feeling that it really isn't the right time of year for dealing with such matters. Either way, the GPA are correct in the assertion this needs further consideration.

Central Council delegates will have their say on Saturday under the chairmanship of president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl. Frankly, it will be a surprise if they reach a conclusive verdict.

The more likely option is to defer a decision until August and using the intervening two months to tease out the many issues involved.

Irish Independent

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