Hurling shake-up on cards yet again
Significant changes are back on the agenda for the hurling leagues and championships from 2014 onwards.
Just 15 months on from a Central Council meeting that brought about an incredible ninth change in the league hurling format in 15 years, proposals for yet another makeover are up for discussion when the same body convenes for the last time in 2012 on December 15.
And at the same meeting, the GAA's Central Competitions Controls Committee (CCCC), which was asked to consider proposals on both competitions, will seek approval to reduce the number of teams competing in the Liam MacCarthy Cup from 15 to 13.
From an initial 12 teams in 2009, the top-tier hurling championship has grown through the addition of Westmeath, Carlow and now London, who have exercised their right to step up and have been given that facility in an ever-expanding Leinster championship.
It has led to some one-sided games, particularly in qualifiers, and in an attempt to recalibrate the MacCarthy Cup, the CCCC wants to streamline the number of counties playing.
Under their proposals, which would kick in from 2014 onwards, a new Leinster championship qualifier would be initiated that would involve five teams that would be considered to be of 'developmental' standard. They are Laois, Antrim, Carlow, Westmeath and London.
The 2013 Christy Ring Cup winners would not have the liberty to move up to MacCarthy Cup level. Under the terms of the proposals, the Munster championship would remain between the existing five teams.
In Leinster the participation of Kilkenny, Galway, Dublin, Wexford and Offaly would be guaranteed in the MacCarthy Cup until 2016. These counties would participate in the mainstream Leinster championship, with the reigning provincial champions continuing to get a bye into the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, the top two teams to emerge from a round-robin qualifier between the five development teams would join the four other Leinster counties for three quarter-finals to determine the other three semi-final placings.
For example, if this applied next year, Galway would automatically be through to a semi-final and two of the development counties would join Wexford, Offaly, Kilkenny and Dublin.
The bottom team in the qualifier would automatically go back down to the Christy Ring Cup with the second-last team playing the Ring Cup winners in a promotion/relegation play-off.
"The idea is that the Ring Cup winners would have to win their way up," explained CCCC chairman Simon Moroney.
"We feel that by making these changes we are ensuring the value of both the Liam MacCarthy and Christy Ring Cups are not diminished. We also feel that by stretching this out over two seasons, we are doing it in the fairest way possible.
"A qualifier competition in Leinster would bring about more meaningful games between teams of similar strength, earning the right to play teams of higher standard. There would be a greater tempo to those games and with relegation there would be so much more to play for."
The gap in MacCarthy and Ring Cup standards appears to have grown in recent years and Antrim's heavy reversal to Limerick in the qualifiers, following on from Cork's nine-goal trouncing of Laois 12 months earlier, points to a massive gulf between the top teams and the rest.
CCCC have also tabled three league options, but are keen to see the first option – that would involve the introduction of quarter-finals to provide a greater link between Division 1A and Division 1B – being passed.
"By doing this we feel we are addressing the concerns and criticisms that were levelled at the new format over the last year," he said.
"We felt the six-team divisions worked very well. A lot of the teams that competed also felt that and the games were competitive and exciting. So we'd like to keep that structure with the addition of quarter-finals.
"There were concerns that some teams had too long of a competitive break from the end of March until June in the championship, but by introducing quarter-finals we are increasing the options for extra games.
"In addition, it gives greater opportunities of exposure for the teams in Division 1B to play the better quality opponents in the top division."
There was controversy last year when the format was changed, reducing the top division to six teams. Counties like Limerick, who had won the previous year's Division 2, felt they were being shortchanged by the move as they moved up to a newly formed Division 1B rather than than 1A, the top league.
But a subsequent, specially convened Central Council meeting in October failed to reverse the original decision.
If quarter-finals are added or Central Council votes to return to divisions of eight, it will be the 10th change in the hurling league format since 1997.