Martin Breheny: Hurling's elitist divide
Superpowers' format squabble brings state of game into focus
SOMETHING unusual and quite disturbing happened in the GAA over the last seven weeks.
As September throbbed to the exciting beat of All-Ireland finals and county championships, the front of the GAA's house looked spectacular, basking in a warm autumn glow after another splendid summer campaign.
At the same time, there were chaotic scenes around the back as some of the house's most influential inhabitants set about usurping new regulations which had been approved in late August. A few of the mutineers supported them, only to subsequently change their minds and join the rebels in an attempt to overturn a decision of the majority.
Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford united to form a high-powered pressure group who wanted to rescind the decision to restructure the Allianz hurling League.
Central Council voted on August 21 to scrap the eight-county Divisions 1 and 2 format in favour of a restructured Divisons 1A and 1B, each comprising six teams.
That, in turn, had a knock-on effect down the line. Wicklow, for instance, who won 3A last spring and were looking forward to stepping up in class against the likes of Clare, Offaly, Antrim and Laois in Division 2 next spring, would find themselves in a reformed division 2A, playing against most of the same counties as this year.
However, since Wicklow aren't among the hurling elite, their disappointment didn't merit much attention. That's unfair, but true, nonetheless.
Higher up the food chain, Limerick were able to generate a big fuss. As Division 2 champions, they were, under the old system, due to be promoted to Division 1, but didn't make the cut for 1A under the new format. They pressed the outrage button and even mentioned the possibility of withdrawing from the 2012 league if an eight-team Division 1 wasn't restored.
That was rich in irony, since the reason Limerick found themselves in Division 2 this season was almost certainly down to having a second-string team playing last year after the main squad withdrew in a row over the team management. Ultimately, it was down to Limerick to sort it out, but they failed and paid the price with a lost season, which included relegation.
Now, they were threatening mutiny and, according to one delegate at last Tuesday night's Central Council meeting, stood accused of bringing the GAA into disrepute. Still, Limerick had seven other accomplices in the attempt to abandon the August decision on the league and return to eight-county Divisions 1 and 2.
The 'gang of eight' had a solid case, even if they didn't make it very well. Under the new system, the top hurling counties were to be guaranteed a minimum of five league games as opposed to seven for the past few years. Meanwhile, semi-finals were to be added to the football league, which already guaranteed every county a minimum of seven games (eight for Division 4).
The 'gang of eight' were right to query why hurling's quota of games were to be cut, thereby reducing competitive, promotional and financial opportunities. Quite why some of them voted for the cuts remains unexplained, but as the situation unfolded afterwards, there was a growing feeling that the reduced programme had, in the main, been voted in by a large number of counties where hurling is very much a minority interest.
The 'gang of eight' then sought to force a change by proposing a motion for Central Council, calling for the August decision to be rescinded. However well-intentioned they were about doing what they regarded as best for hurling, they were clueless in terms of how they sold it. They needed to bring others with them, but instead only served to alienate potential allies.
Indeed, they were attacked at Tuesday night's Central Council meeting for calling 'caucus meetings' and of trying to bully their way around a decision taken only seven weeks earlier.
"This was the elite of hurling up to their usual tricks. There's a great snobbery when it comes to hurling, with the strong counties looking down their noses at everybody else and implying that we don't really understand what's right for the game. In fact, it alienated the rest of us so badly, that you'd feel like voting against them just to teach them a lesson," said one Central Council delegate.
It was also surprising that the 'gang of eight' didn't co-ordinate strategy before the August meeting, while also launching a media campaign to outline their objections to the proposed format. But then, since some of them voted for change, it's clear there was no unity before the meeting.
At face value, it might appear as if the clash between hurling's superpowers and the rest was no more than a minor squabble over a format that can be easily changed again (indeed, it is highly likely to be, since the NHL has undergone nine adjustments since 1997), but there's another context which has been broadening in recent years.
Hurling people believe that because football is stronger in many counties, it dominates all the major decisions. The strong hurling forces argue -- and with some justification, it must be said -- that many football-dominated counties have a disproportionate say in small ball affairs. That point is underlined by the bizarre reality that Cavan, who won't field a hurling team in next year's league, were entitled to vote on the disputed format at Central Council.
Conversely, there's a view that hurling punches above its weight in some aspects. When new disciplinary rules were trialled in the 2009 league, the hurling world objected strenuously, insisting that they were unnecessary and had been introduced because of problems in football. Hurling saw itself being penalised for the sins of football and launched a strong campaign against the new rules, most of which were later scrapped.
The GAA has always prided itself on its democracy and the right of every county to vote on an equal basis at Central Council. Thus, Cavan, who have no senior hurling team at present, are as entitled to vote on hurling matters as Kilkenny. Equally, Kilkenny, who don't field a team in the SFC, can influence a major decision on football.
There is a great reluctance in the GAA to change that system, but the whole area of responsibility needs to be addressed. Apart altogether from the football v hurling divide, there's now a hurling v hurling divide after the extraordinary events of the last two months.
The 'gang of eight' are frustrated that they didn't succeed in having the August decision on the NHL rescinded, although they did get some concession with the return of semi-finals in Division 1.
Mind you, the background to that was divisive too, as it's believed the threat of a case going to the Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) influenced the change from what was agreed in August.
There's annoyance among many weaker hurling counties over what they perceive as elitism by the 'gang of eight' in trying to ring-fence the league to suit themselves.
On the wider scale, there's the unquestioned embarrassment which the GAA authorities must feel at having a decision on the second most important competition in hurling overturned so quickly.
Central Council is the body charged with running important GAA affairs between annual Congresses, yet it changed its mind on such an important issue as competition structure inside seven weeks. Can it really claim to be fit for purpose after that?