Open draw only real answer to annual club hurling farce
BY the time Ballyhale Shamrocks puck their first ball in this year's AIB Leinster Senior Club Hurling Championship on Sunday week, it will be a month since Loughgiel Shamrocks won the Ulster title.
The Munster final will be played a week earlier, while Connacht doesn't have a final.
Effectively, the clash between Loughrea and St Thomas's next Sunday is both a Galway and a Connacht final, with the winners heading into the All-Ireland semi-finals.
The All-Ireland rota will pair Loughgiel against the Galway champions in February, with the Munster and Leinster winners meeting in the other semi-final.
What with different sized clubs, counties and provinces, inequality has always been built into the GAA's competition structure and since redrawing boundaries (even between provinces where the make-up defies logic) would, apparently, be deemed sacrilegious, there's little likelihood of change anytime soon.
However, that's no reason to give up altogether on the search for fairness. Competition structures are an obvious starting point, not least in the Senior Club Hurling Championship, which is as lopsided as a drunken camel.
Four counties, Antrim, Armagh, Derry and Down, were represented in the Ulster championship, where Loughgiel were in a different class, winning the semi-final and final on combined scores of 3-50 to 0-24 against Middletown and Portaferry respectively. Quite simply, the Ulster championship was no more than an end-of-season run-out for Loughgiel.
Still, they had some provincial commitments unlike the Galway champions.
It means that when Loughgiel, Loughrea or St Thomas's line up in the All-Ireland final on St Patrick's Day, they will be representing five competing counties from Ulster and Connacht, three of whom (Armagh, Down, Derry) are way off top pace.
Contrast that with the other side of the draw where the winners of the Leinster v Munster semi-final will have emerged from 12 contenders (seven Leinster, five Munster).
Since the All-Ireland semi-final pairings rotate on a provincial basis, this happens every three years. It's blatantly unfair that Galway and Antrim are handed such an advantage, yet it has remained a permanent feature of the club championship.
Remarkably, it has gone largely unmentioned in the corridors of power, unlike the broad equivalent that applied at county level pre 1997 when Galway and the Ulster champions qualified automatically for the All-Ireland semi-finals.
That made no sense either, but at least it was kept in check to some degree by not allowing Galway and Antrim to meet in the semi-finals, instead pairing them with the Leinster and Munster champions on a rotating basis.
The All-Ireland inter-county championships underwent a series of changes between 1997 and 2008, before Galway and Antrim switched into Leinster in 2009.
It made perfect sense on a number of fronts and has worked well.
Should the same not apply for the club championship? Instead, we have an indefensibly uneven system. At the very least, it's surprising that Leinster and Munster haven't come together to lobby for a change in the All-Ireland rota so as to avoid Galway v Ulster semi-finals.
Of course, there's an alternative to the current system which could prove very interesting. An 'open draw' club championship would guarantee a much fairer All-Ireland competition without damaging the quality in any way.
One of the arguments for retaining the provincial championships at county level is that tradition and local rivalries are still major attractions. That doesn't apply to the same degree to the club championships, since different pairings emerge all the time.
Indeed, there's every reason to believe that an open-draw clash between Ballyhale Shamrocks (Kilkenny) and De La Salle (Waterford) would draw a bigger crowd than De La Salle's Munster final clash with Thurles Sarsfields on Sunday week.
The argument against the current system is pretty compelling when you take, for example, Oulart-The Ballagh. The Wexford champions were paired against Kilmacud Crokes (away) in the Leinster quarter-final and, having won that, now have to face Ballyhale, one of the most successful clubs in the history of the All-Ireland championship.
If Oulart win again, a provincial final beckons against Rathdowney-Errill or Kilcormac-Killoughey. And if Oulart win Leinster, they still have to beat the Munster champions to reach the All-Ireland final.
Meanwhile, Loughgiel, who weren't tested in Ulster, and the Galway champions, who qualify automatically for the All-Ireland semi-final, face one big test against each other with the winners heading for Croke Park on St Patrick's Day.
Truly, it's an unequal world.