New dawn rises for hurling
2018 inter-county calendar will have 19 extra games if new plans get green light
Compromise is at the centre of a proposal to reshape the All-Ireland hurling championships and give Galway teams more integration into Leinster underage competitions.
The plans, which will be put to Central Council on Saturday week for approval to go before a likely Special Congress later in the year, will see the Munster and Leinster hurling championships played off on a home-and-away round-robin basis and a five-team provincial qualifier offering the winners a place in a play-off to reach All-Ireland quarter-finals.
That is a variation on what a previous Hurling Development Committee put forward, proposing that the top two teams in the qualifier would progress to preliminary All-Ireland quarter-finals against the third-placed teams in the two provincial groups.
However, CCCC stripped out part of that extra layer and have opted instead for one play-off game instead of two with third-placed teams in Munster and Leinster to play the provincial qualifier winners in alternate years.
The winners of that game will play the beaten Munster or Leinster finalists, depending on which year, in one All-Ireland quarter-final with the other third-placed team and other beaten provincial finalists playing off in the second quarter-final.
The new plan will lead to 11 additional championship games. In addition to the eight extra football championship matches, it will bring the overall package between football and hurling to 19 games, an increase of 22 per cent just over a year after leading GAA officials insisted that the principle of protecting a club game couldn't be observed if proposals for extra inter-county games were being recommended.
The new schedule will however be built into a tighter time-frame with April now being set aside almost exclusively for club activity. The proposed 2018 provincial groups will be as follows:
Leinster - Kilkenny, Wexford, Galway, Dublin, Offaly.
Munster - Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Clare, Waterford.
Provincial qualifiers - Laois, Westmeath, Kerry, Antrim, Carlow.
Antrim and Carlow qualify courtesy of reaching the Christy Ring Cup final this weekend. Meath, who were relegated from this year's four-team Leinster round robin group, miss out.
The bottom team in the Leinster Championship will be relegated to the provincial qualifier and replaced by the qualifier winners each year. But if Kerry or another Munster team top the qualifier group they will gain entry to the Munster Championship at the expense of the bottom-placed team.
The bottom team in the provincial qualifier will be relegated and replaced by the Christy Ring Cup winners.
The three other hurling competitions, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups, have all been adjusted as a consequence.
Attempts to devise a system that allowed the provincial qualifiers to qualify for the Leinster Championship were shelved because of the constraints on the calendar and the desire to keep April as free as possible for club activity.
The three groups will run concurrently through May and into June with two matches in each round, giving one team a bye. The provincial finals in Leinster and Munster will be contested between the top two teams with the winners progressing straight to an All-Ireland semi-final. The new proposal allows for Galway to play two home matches which is something they had lobbied hard for and threatened to leave the Leinster Championship over. Galway have also sought entry to the Leinster U-21 and minor competitions but have met with opposition from the vast majority of counties.
However, compromise again could be reached with a proposal to integrate them into the U-21 championship while their minors could participate in a three-team round-robin involving the beaten finalists from the two provincial minor championships with the top two going forward to All-Ireland semi-finals.
It is also proposed that Antrim and any other Ulster county deemed strong enough would compete in Leinster minor and U-21 championships.
With Galway and Antrim in a Leinster U-21 championship, it would remove the need for All-Ireland semi-finals which they have been given an automatic place in up to now. The report, circulated yesterday, said the current U-21 system wasn't "sustainable."