'If hurling is to progress, the championships have to change'
When the Hurling Development Committee (HDC) met in Croke Park last Thursday evening, the mood was one of despondency and disappointment.
Earlier that day, some of the committee had seen the PDF file containing the proposals put forward by the Central Competitions Controls Committee (CCCC) for the 2014 National Hurling league and the championship proposals for 2014-16 and beyond.
When the HDC members began to digest the information, they were livid, because their own proposals had effectively been binned. "We were all just completely frustrated," says HDC chairman Tommy Lanigan.
"We don't mind if our proposals are rejected but we do require a wide-ranging hearing amongst hurling people. If they are rejected then, that's fine. But it feels as if the CCCC said 'Thanks very much boys but that's it now – good luck'."
The HDC rightly feel that they deserve far better. A couple of their ideas have been taken on board by the CCCC but the core theme has been discarded. Similar to the previous HDC, the current committee feel that hurling people – and their needs – are again being ignored.
"This is simple and very blunt," says Lanigan. "If hurling is to progress, the championships just have to change.
"And individuals, and county boards, will just have to take a more long-term view. We felt our proposals presented counties with the opportunity to really build for the long-term."
The CCCC will argue that their proposals cater for those needs. They prioritise providing a pathway for counties to progress to higher levels of competition but only if they manage to win their way up the ranks. The CCCC also appear to have focused most attention on counties caught in limbo between the MacCarthy and Ring Cups.
Yet the HDC had already provided that framework through a Leinster qualifier group between Antrim, Laois, Carlow, Westmeath and London. Under the CCCC's proposals, the top two teams would progress to the senior championship, the bottom side would be relegated and the second-last would play the Ring Cup winners for MacCarthy Cup status in 2015.
The HDC's proposals, though, are far more wide-ranging and inclusive of every county's development. For a start, every team would have got the same number of meaningful games. Qualifier games would have been played on a home and away basis.
The HDC also argue that their proposals would have enhanced the primacy of the provincial championships. For example, the Munster and Leinster championships would see five teams play two games at home and two away, with the top two teams qualifying for the final.
Under the HDC's proposals, the third team in Munster and Leinster would play a Liam MacCarthy qualifier against the top two teams in Group C (Antrim, Carlow, Laois, Westmeath and London). The Group C winner would also be promoted to the top tier in Leinster for the following year.
The CCCC's blueprint would see the current 15-team field reduced incrementally to 13 by 2016 but there is still a clear promotion-relegation issue in the hurling championship.
"We feel that that is creating a hurling imbalance," says Lanigan. "There are counties that no matter how poorly they do, they cannot be dropped. There will be a three-year review of that model but we all know what happens with reviews."
For too long now, the lingering sense is that there are far too few big hurling championship matches during the summer. The HDC's proposals are effectively a Champions League model, which would guarantee 12 extra matches. Yet there has been no desire to go to those lengths in the past and that still appears to be case again now – primarily because it is loaded with the potential for meaningless games and diminishing crowds as the competition would progress.
Yet are there not enough meaningless games as it is? As one example, Limerick hammered Laois and Antrim in this year's championship by an aggregate margin of 57 points.
In any case, a Champions League system would still make for a far more equitable championship. For example, the Clare hurlers have played a paltry 10 championship matches in the last four years, which has stunted the development of a talented young team.
A Champions League system may mean twice as many games but if it was structured and streamlined properly, the competition would be run in less time than it is now, gaining twice the exposure along with the potential to generate far more revenue.
"We have to bring hurling back to the people," says Lanigan. "We have to keep hurling close to the people who are playing it. Plus, we haven't even begun to work on the promotion of hurling. We do great marketing at national level but we need to do far more promotion at local level. There is great coaching being done around the country but one of the best ways to get young people hurling is to have immediate promotions around them."
The Kilkenny squad could be a promotional machine by playing more games and going on the road more often. On their journey to becoming the greatest team of all time, with the likes of Henry Shefflin (left) winning six All-Ireland titles in seven years, the Cats played just 30 championship matches. Just eight of those games were outside Croke Park.
One of the greatest days Westmeath hurling has had in the last 20 years was when Kilkenny came to Mullingar for the 2006 Leinster semi-final, and the crowd of 6,891 was the largest ever to attend Cusack Park for a hurling game.
The only times Kilkenny have played outside Leinster since 2006 were on two occasions in Thurles.
Kilkenny really only go on the road during the league, which denies the greater hurling public a chance to see them up close – especially when two of the CCCC's three options concerning the National League are based on the current six-team format in Divisions 1A and 1B.
The CCCC felt that the introduction of quarter-finals guarantees the majority of counties in 1A and 1B six games as opposed to five.
The HDC's proposals of a six-team division for the league, with the top two teams qualifying for the final, would obviously cause some angst with fewer games. Yet that misses the bigger picture: the HDC want more games in the summer, as opposed to the spring.
The HDC model would see the championships begin in early May and each county would have played a guaranteed four games by June.
More importantly, there would be an in-built weekend for club games once a month. "We want to bring hurling into the summer months," says Lanigan. "But to also take into account the needs of 98pc of our playing population – the club player."
Should the CCCC's proposals be accepted, they will go forward to annual Congress as motions and, if passed, will be implemented for the 2014 season.
Yet the hurling community, and especially county boards, need to go back and look carefully at the HDC's proposals. Because their ideas are too good – and too loud – not to be heard.