Sunday 28 May 2017

Gatecrash duo add life to the party in Leinster

Galway and Antrim's move a clear success, says Damian Lawlor

THE initial proposal to allow Galway and Antrim into the Leinster hurling championship may have been met with much scepticism, but it's proving to be a timely intervention.

And it now appears that the next move will now see the introduction of the two counties to Leinster's minor and under 21 championships.

Bringing them into the senior reckoning was a ball hopped seven years ago by then provincial chairman Nickey Brennan, who mooted the idea of Galway coming east, only to see his proposal shot down.

Gradually, though, the realisation that the ailing Leinster championship needed an injection of life hit home and last year the two teams were finally cleared to enter the province for the first time.

It's worked well; Antrim brought Offaly to extra-time in a pulsating encounter a few weeks ago and Joe Dooley's men have since upped their game significantly, to the extent that they look to be back at the business-end of the competition.

Meanwhile, today sees a once action-starved Galway make their fourth championship appearance of the season and take their bow in a Leinster final. In times gone by, they could have waited four years to clock up that many games.

Their opponents Kilkenny, ironically enough, supported their introduction from day one, but it was other Leinster counties who feared that Galway's presence would leave them even further down the ladder.

"I think all those early misgivings have been forgotten now," says Leinster CEO Michael Delaney. "The two teams have given our championship new life and it badly needed it. Other counties like Offaly, rather than feel sorry for themselves, look to be rejuvenated and have reached a new level. The extra competition gave counties a choice: they either upped their game or they were left behind. We are noticing that most counties have responded to the challenge positively.

"Attendances are up too," Delaney revealed. "There were 7,000 more people at the Leinster hurling semi-finals this year than there were last year (not including the Offaly-Galway replay). So, we haven't looked back, Antrim are continuing to improve and Galway haven't had this many games in a long time. In fairness, I think their management realise it's been a good move too."

Something certainly needed to happen. This championship, up to two years ago, was an embarrassment; derided for years, and rightly so. Games were won by crazy margins and even the likes of Wexford and Offaly were subjected to cricket-score whippings at one stage or another as Kilkenny pulled so far ahead of the rest.

But since Galway and Antrim linked up and since teams like Kildare and Wicklow reverted to the Christy Ring Cup, the average winning margin in Leinster hurling championship games has dropped from 12 points per match to just eight. That's a significant decline considering Brian Cody's all-conquering side is still thriving.

While Kildare, Westmeath, Wicklow and company were disgruntled to have been excluded from the championship proper, it's given them a chance to go back to the drawing board to try and reach the required standard.

They are not up to the mark yet, although Westmeath are close and Carlow, back in this season, are being rewarded for their hard work -- they were only beaten by six points against Laois in the championship opener back in May following some fine displays at underage level in recent years.

While Wexford are behind Offaly in the pecking order, they are, at least, back in Division 1 again.

Dublin reached last year's final and have already reached Leinster finals at under 21 and minor level this season. Wexford and Offaly know they must pull out all the stops or risk being eclipsed by enthusiastic young teams like Dublin and Carlow.

There may have been plenty of opposition to letting Galway and Antrim into this competition, but as we prepare for a potential cracker at Croke Park today, few can argue that it hasn't been good for a once-stricken provincial championship.

Sunday Independent

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