Wednesday 28 June 2017

Hurling deserves so much better

Unfair that a team can lose four times in Division 1B and get same reward as top-flight winners

Paraic Maher in action against Colin Fennelly. Photo: Sportsfile
Paraic Maher in action against Colin Fennelly. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Apart from a delightful spring moon, it was dark in Dr Morris Park, Thurles an hour after last Saturday night's superb Tipperary-Kilkenny contest.

Most of the 14,763 spectators had left and as I walked towards my car, parked between pitches in the splendid training facility, I met two Tipperary men who were patiently waiting for the third member of their party to return. They talked about the delights of a fascinating encounter that had provided real impetus to the hurling season's take-off, after which one of them made a very interesting observation. "Wouldn't it be great if they could do it all over again in Nowlan Park in a few weeks' time? Why can't they make that happen?"

arrangement Why indeed? The great old rivals might clash again in this year's Allianz League, although it's by no means certain, not least because Kilkenny won't even qualify for the knockout stages unless they beat Dublin on Sunday week.

As has been the case in most years under the current arrangement, it's highly likely that at least one team on four points in Division 1A will not reach the quarter-finals, instead heading for a relegation play-off.

Contrast that with 1B, where, if Offaly beat Kerry in the final round, a team with one win from five games will still be in the quarter-finals.

Laois and Kerry have one win each while Offaly have lost all four games. Yet if they beat Kerry and Wexford beat Laois - two likely results - they will qualify for a quarter-final clash with Tipperary.

If Kerry win, they will take fourth place in 1B and play Tipperary, who are certain to top 1A. When it comes to the championship, Kerry move out of Munster and into the Leinster round robin believing that there's no value in competing at the much higher level in their own province, yet they could be playing Tipperary in a league quarter-final.

What's certain is that one from Kerry, Laois and Offaly will qualify for the league quarter-finals against 1A opposition, despite having suffered some very big defeats in 1B, leaving them with an average points differential of -47. That's what happens when the reward for finishing in the top four (of six) is the same for 1A as 1B, despite the lower half of 1B being vastly inferior.

How, in the name of all that's logical or fair, can that be allowed to continue?

Anomalies are difficult to avoid in a provincial-based championship system but this is the league where the formats can be changed at any time to suit, depending on perceived requirements. It works well in football, with four groups of eight, each decided on placings in the previous season.

Granted, the hurling situation is more complex as there are wider variations in standards at a number of levels.

The eight-team Divisions 1 and 2 hurling groups were dispensed with six years ago, in favour of six-team 1A and 1B, a situation which has resulted in some daft anomalies, which are not good for the game.

For example, Limerick's failure to force their way into 1A has left them without a league game against Tipperary or Kilkenny since 2010.

Limerick are always in the top nine, yet the system keeps them away from hurling's top two for seven years, with more to come.

That brings us back to the two Tipperary men in Dr Morris Park last Saturday night. If Kilkenny and Tipperary were guaranteed to meet again in Nowlan Park in a few weeks' time, a crowd of 20,000 could be expected.

Isn't that what hurling needs? A 'home and away' system scores on a number of fronts and would be quite easily organised.

relegated Two groups of five, playing 'home' and 'away' would guarantee the top ten counties eight games each, with the top two in each section qualifying for the semi-finals and the bottom two relegated.

The recent Congress decision to restructure the closing stages of the football championships has left many hurling people uneasy, believing that small-ball action was in greater need of attention.

Instead, football was chosen for 'Super 8' treatment, ensuring a major surge in profile at the height of summer. The hurling championship was left untouched and there are no immediate plans to adjust the league either, despite being riven with contradictions.

Early next month, Offaly, Laois or Kerry will play Tipperary in the league quarter-final on the same day as two 1A teams, at least one of which will have won two games, face a relegation play-off. That's perverse. Having so much to give, hurling deserves better than that.

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