Sunday 23 April 2017

Martin Breheny: Tony Kelly's call a voice for the future

Clare forward star makes solid case for scrapping provincial hurling championships

Clare star Tony Kelly ‘wouldn’t have an objection if they got rid of the Munster championship’. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Clare star Tony Kelly ‘wouldn’t have an objection if they got rid of the Munster championship’. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Provided he avoids serious injury, his passion for hurling doesn't wane and the earth keeps turning on its axis, Tony Kelly will be whizzing around our inter-county fields for another decade at least.

He has already been on them for five years, having made his senior debut at the age of 18 in 2012. He has won All-Ireland senior and U-21 medals, an Allianz League title and, on St Patrick's Day, will attempt to add a club success with Ballyea.

So far he hasn't won a Munster senior medal, a prize that doesn't appear to be high up the priority list either for the 2013 Hurler of the Year. In fact, he "wouldn't have an objection if they got rid of the Munster Championship and had an all-out proper All-Ireland series with everyone in it."

Horrified

Those who regard the Munster Championship as a non-negotiable part of the All-Ireland series will be horrified to hear Kelly display a willingness to despatch such a sacred cow to the knacker's yard.

Of course it's under no immediate threat but I doubt if it will outlast Kelly's career. The same goes for Leinster, which has already opened its doors to the other three provinces. The addition of the 'Super 8' to the football scene has concentrated hurling minds, prompting them to reflect on their championship.

There's a sense that hurling has been left behind, perhaps temporarily, but still for long enough to raise questions about future direction. It could be argued that hurling, which currently has 27 championship games, badly needed an increase more than football (61 games), but it's not on the agenda, for the present at least.

However, the debate can't be long delayed. And when it comes, serious consideration needs to be given to scrapping the provincial championships in both codes as they are largely responsible for many of the problems caused for club players. The reality is that proper All-Ireland scheduling is next to impossible while the provincials continue in their present haphazard form.

As was the case with championship reform 20 years ago, the first move came in hurling when the beaten Leinster and Munster finalists were re-admitted to the All-Ireland series in 1997.

Football had its first change in 2001 with the introduction of the qualifiers and, while hurling underwent several more adjustments over the next decade, none were as significant as the 'Super 8', which starts a three-year trial in the senior football championship next season.

Now, the focus returns to hurling. And while Kelly's comments on the Munster Championship won't have any immediate impact, they may help to start a conversation on how best to cater for a game where fewer than half the counties compete for the biggest prize.

Replacing the provincial championships with a new format, embracing Munster, Leinster, Galway and any Ulster county that reaches the top tier, has obvious merits from a structural viewpoint.

Of course, provincial councils would oppose such a move, fearing the worst for their financial and administrative roles.

That would have to be addressed first so that decisions were made on the basis of what was good for the competitions, rather than merely maintaining an organisational status quo.

Read more: Clare blow with O'Donnell out for six weeks

Veto

Provincial councils would always have an important role in the GAA's structural system, although not extending to imposing a veto on championship reform.

Scrapping the provincial championships as part of the All-Ireland race could be of enormous benefit to hurling and, once it was seen to work, would hasten similar change in football.

Provincial loyalists will argue that Kelly's comments flow from a young man who doesn't fully understand history or tradition but consider this from someone with a deep appreciation of both. Despite that, he would be happy to see the provincials scrapped:

"I would abolish the provincial championships and replace them with a carefully-calibrated mechanism designed to get the most from having the top counties pursuing the All-Ireland title.

"I'm just as proud of the Leinster Championship as Munster people are of theirs but I still believe it would be in hurling's best interests if both were scrapped. The wrong time to change something is when it's played out. It's far better to freshen things up when they're going well."

That was Brian Cody's view as far back as 2009. The need for change is even greater now than then.

Irish Independent

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