Relegation U-turn looms in McCarthy reshuffle
THE All-Ireland hurling championship format will change for the eighth time in 13 years if counties agree to overturn a vote taken only five months ago.
Remarkably, it means that a decision reached by Special Congress last October won't be implemented for even one season, raising questions as to what exactly was the function of the autumn deliberations.
Special Congress voted to relegate one county from the Liam McCarthy Cup tier this year but delegates at next month's annual Congress will be asked to support a no-demotion format for the next three years. If agreed, it could mean that as many 16 counties will be competing for the McCarthy Cup by 2013. It's one of a series of proposals -- some of which are certain to prove controversial -- that will appear on the agenda when Congress convenes in Newcastle, county Down, on April 16-17.
Due to be published shortly, they have been seen by the Irish Independent and include scrapping the All-Ireland intermediate and junior championships, ending the system whereby beaten provincial minor football finalists were re-admitted to the All-Ireland race, and cutting representation at Congress for smaller counties from four to two.
There will be considerable interest among the hurling community in the latest championship proposals, which have been approved by Central Council. Twelve counties competed for the McCarthy Cup in 2009 but, following a row over relegation, it was agreed to increase the number of participants to 13 this year, with Carlow (2009 Christy Ring Cup winners) joining Kilkenny, Dublin, Wexford, Offaly, Laois, Galway, Antrim, Tipperary, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Clare.
Having won the Ring Cup, Carlow were automatically entitled to promotion, with Clare, Wexford, Offaly and Antrim battling it out to avoid the drop last year. Two relegation games were played, leaving Antrim to face Wexford to decide who would be relegated to Ring level. However, following appeals to the DRA, it was decided not to proceed with relegation, much to the relief of Antrim and Wexford.
Special Congress subsequently opted to reintroduce relegation in order to cut the number back to 12 at the end of this year's championship, but the latest proposal not only ignores that but calls for no forced relegation for the next three seasons. However, the Ring Cup winners will be promoted, thereby increasing by one the representation in the McCarthy Cup for three years.
Counties in the McCarthy Cup tier who believe they are not strong enough to compete at the highest level will have the option of dropping down to Ring level, while the Ring champions can remain in that group is they wish.
It's unlikely that any county will opt out of the McCarthy Cup competition which means that 16 counties will be involved in three years' time. That's an increase of four on the number which competed last year and raises serious questions as to whether standards will be sufficiently high to warrant half the country competing at elite level.
With the Ring Cup winners coming up to McCarthy level, it will weaken the second tier, which is currently occupied by Kildare, Westmeath, Wicklow, Meath, Down, Kerry and Mayo.
There's bound to be unease over a proposal to introduce yet another change to the hurling championship format without even trying out what was agreed at Special Congress last October for one year. And while the change relates solely to promotion/relegation, it's still another amendment to a system which has been altered so many times since 1997 that the general public find it difficult to keep track.
The proposals to scrap the All-Ireland intermediate and junior championships was expected, while allowing beaten provincial minor football finalists back into the All-Ireland race has also met with mixed reaction in recent years.
On the administrative front, the proposal to cut Congress representation from four to two (plus a Central Council delegate) for counties with a small number of clubs is likely to meet with opposition as it gives the larger counties, whose full voting strength will be 11, a major advantage in the decision-making process.
Smaller counties already feel they lack influence and will regard this as a further erosion of their position. However, the proposal to cut Congress quotas has been agreed by Central Council, which included representatives from smaller counties.
A proposal to create a Central Fixtures Planning Committee and write its functions and responsibilities into rule suggests that Croke Park are determined to streamline the various games' programmes over the coming years.
The eight-person committee will be responsible for planning, monitoring and reviewing national fixtures programmes. It will work with existing bodies to produce three-year fixtures schedules and will oversee the appointment of similar planners at provincial and county level.
The aim is to develop a system of accountability so that the entire structure -- from lowest club level to All-Ireland senior championships -- is properly integrated in the interest of players of all standards.