independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

GAA president: Hurling at the crossroads

IF undisputed facts provide the most reliable evidence of all, then Danny Owens presents a compelling case in his submission that Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork will win every All-Ireland hurling final "from now until kingdom come."

A double All-Ireland winner with Offaly in 1981 and 1985 and current manager of Kilcormac-Killoughey, who begin their AIB Leinster championship bid against Mount Leinster Rangers (Carlow) tomorrow, Owens asserted this week that the second-chance All-Ireland format virtually guarantees that one of the 'Big Three' will dominate the championship indefinitely.

"You might catch one of them on a given day, but not all three. Over time, there's always one or two of them going well," he said in an Irish Independent interview.

Initiative

In another interview, which ran alongside Owens' comments, GAA president Liam O'Neill outlined how the GAA had launched an initiative designed to raise standards in Carlow, Laois, Westmeath, Antrim, Down and Kerry to a level where at least one of them would reach an All-Ireland quarter-final, possibly even a semi-final, inside the next decade.

Those six counties, working with Croke Park, will devise plans to further develop hurling in a project which will be backed by central funds.

"It can be done. I know people will say it's very ambitious to take on six counties and talk of having them in All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals, but even if we get one of them there, it will be a success. Dublin were targeted after the Strategic Review Report in 2002 and they reached an All-Ireland semi-final inside 10 years.

"Look at where Galway were back in the 1950s and 1960s -- who'd have thought that they would win an All-Ireland in 1980 and be a major force ever since?

"Most things can be achieved if they're gone about in the right way," said O'Neill.

Anything that helps raise standards, especially in counties outside the top 10 and in danger of being cut adrift, is to be welcomed, but if Owens' theory about the 'Big Three' is correct, it raises another issue: how damaging will it be for hurling if All-Ireland power is vested totally in such a small base?

Galway's demolition of Kilkenny in the Leinster final and their close call in the drawn All-Ireland final can be used to question the validity of Owens' argument, but the record books will show that Liam MacCarthy spent the winter of 2012/13 in black-and-amber country.

"Close doesn't win matches. In the end, Kilkenny were All-Ireland champions again. Galway did very well but their long wait for an All-Ireland goes on," said Owens.

He has a strong advocate for his prediction of a Kilkenny-Tipp-Cork stranglehold on the All-Ireland roll of honour which shows that the trio has shared the last 14 All-Ireland titles between them. Prior to that, their longest period of dominance was eight years early in the last century.

The introduction of a second chance for teams beaten in the provincial championships was always going to benefit the stronger counties. Cork (2004), Tipperary (2010) and Kilkenny (2012) have all won the All-Ireland after losing in the provinces, leaving Offaly (1998) as the only 'outsider' to break into the exclusive 'back-door success' club.

No more than most other hurling people, Owens isn't advocating a return to a straight knockout championship, but his prediction that the 'Big Three' will further tighten their grip on the glory levers has to be of concern. All the more so after they have just reeled off 14 All-Ireland wins between them, whereas they had to share the previous 12 with Galway (2), Offaly (2), Clare (2) and Wexford (1).

Of that quartet, Galway remain genuine contenders, Clare are rebuilding steadily but All-Ireland odds of 125/1 and 150/1 respectively for Offaly and Wexford indicate how far down the scale they have slipped. Indeed, they might well ask why, like Ireland in Europe, they shouldn't be deemed special cases too in any overall development plan?

If Owens and O'Neill are both right then hurling now has four distinct levels. Based on long-term and more recent history, Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork comprise the ultimate elite; Galway, Clare, Waterford, Limerick, Dublin, Wexford and Offaly are in the following band, albeit at different strengths; Carlow, Laois, Westmeath, Antrim, Down and Kerry are next in line and about to be targeted for co-ordinated development; the remaining 16 are strung out at various intervals.

Working on developing the six counties selected for special attention is worthwhile, but it does raise the question of why some of them have fallen so far off the pace. The decline of Laois has been startling in its severity, and while progress has been made at underage level in recent years, the senior scene is in serious trouble.

What happened in Laois since the 1980s, when they were genuine Leinster contenders? Or even the second half of the 1990s, when they gave Offaly and Kilkenny a real fright in the championship? Why hasn't the switch to Leinster done anything for Antrim? It was supposed to make them more competitive but, so far, it hasn't.

With the possible exception of Carlow, all the counties in the group of six chosen for a redevelopment plan were doing much better at various stages over the last 30 years than they are now. Why weren't the good times a starting base for real progress?

It's easy to claim that weaker counties will always enjoy brief power surges when a particularly talented group of players emerge together but that it can't be maintained because the economy of scale doesn't allow it.

That's certainly a factor but there has to be more to it than that. For instance, when last were Laois as low as their championship performances over the last two years suggest they are? Why did that happen? Not winning titles or even reaching finals is acceptable but losing three championship games in two years by an average of 28 points is not.

At the high end of the scale, the big fear is that elite will pull even further ahead. Standards at the top end are rising, which increases the likelihood of one-sided games, even between counties which, traditionally, had some great championship battles. It's not that long ago since there was an element of unpredictability in Kilkenny-Wexford and Kilkenny-Offaly games. Not anymore.

Owens could be wrong about his prediction that Liam MacCarthy will never again winter outside Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork but by how much?

There may be the occasional raid but it's likely that the 'Big Three' will win at least eight of the next 10 titles, bringing their total since 1999 to 22 out of 24. Time perhaps for a bigger hurling plan than the one announced this week for the six counties just outside the top 10.

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