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Thursday 19 September 2019

Comment: Winds of change reach gale force on transformed GAA landscape

Saturday's hurling reform completes radical 18-month revolution

The result of Motion 21 is displayed on the screen behind the top table during Saturday’s Special Congress at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
The result of Motion 21 is displayed on the screen behind the top table during Saturday’s Special Congress at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Whatever else the GAA is to be accused of in the future, failing to embrace change will hardly make them a target.

It may not be the complete uprooting of provinces some would prefer but, by any measure, what has happened over the last 18 months, between two annual Congresses and the weekend's Special Congress, change has been seismic.

From changing U-21 and minor (U-18) inter-county competition to U-20 and U-17, August championship conclusions, the addition of extra-time for the majority of championship games to a new All-Ireland quarter-final format (Super Eights) in football that will provide eight extra games in July to Saturday's headline act; the introduction of a round robin format for the Munster and Leinster Championships (two five-team groups) and the creation of a new tier two for six counties deemed below Christy Ring Cup level, the landscape has changed utterly.

For some, a terrible beauty may well be born. Big dual counties like Cork and Tipperary voiced their extreme concern about the ability to get through a programme of club games within such a schedule, especially if their inter-county hurling and football teams thrive.

Cork County Board secretary Frank Murphy warned of "irreparable damage" to a provincial championship he said had stood the test of time while Waterford chairman Paddy Joe Ryan gravely predicted it will be "the worst decision in the history of the GAA."

But in the end support for the Central Council motion, rather than motions offered up by Cork and Dublin, which focused on changes at All-Ireland quarter-final level and Tipperary, who sought re-entry for losers at provincial final stage, was far greater with 62 per cent of delegates supporting it.

Even its success was wrapped up in the winds of change that have blown so hard. This year's Congress voted to reduce the threshold for motions to be carried from two-thirds majority to 60 per cent. Without that, this reform would have failed.

It was helped by some behind the scenes 'understanding' that if it was carried, an amendment submitted jointly by Meath, Laois and Offaly would allow the tier two finalists to enter the Liam MacCarthy Cup at preliminary quarter-final stage where they would play the third-placed teams in each province.

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With that 'understanding' those tier two counties, by and large, came on board, helping the principle motion over the line.

The 2018 MacCarthy Cup will now have 29 matches, 22 in the provinces in May and June, as opposed to 22 in 2017 if the four-team Leinster qualifier is excluded.

Incorporate the 16 tier two games, and the number of games rises to 45, 17 more than 2017 if the six Leinster qualifier games are included.

That's a lot of extra games in a much more concentrated period of time but the architects are confident that the spin off of more time for club fixtures in July and especially August for the majority will make it worthwhile.

GAA president Aogan O Feraghail described it as a "brave and bold decision" while director-general Paraic Duffy sees a "positive opportunity", rejecting the dual counties' concerns.

"If counties look at this honestly, if you look at it from May first until the first teams are out of the Championship, how many club championship games are actually played?" he asked.

"How many games in Dublin or in Mayo or Galway hurling are played during the summer? I'd say the number of club championship games played is very few. Now, they can start their championship if they want to in April, they'll have a four or five-week gap and they'll be finished an awful lot earlier. I don't see how that's a problem - I see that as a positive opportunity, I think counties will embrace that."

O Fearghail felt "substantial progress" had been made. "There are facts that are incontrovertible - there are now more weekends free for club. If you're going to start (the inter-county championship) in May and finish in mid-August there are going to be an awful lot more weekends.

"You saw all the motions that were passed in relation to extra-time and matches being finished on the day. That's going to impact strongly. I saw it in my own county, if Cavan won a game, no club games were played. You were idle and my own club used to be so frustrated, sitting, waiting."

A greater number of games at provincial venues is also cited as a positive development while broadcast revenue may also increase though Duffy suggested the number of extra games being shown live will not increase dramatically.

"It doesn't mean the extra games will be on TV because for us attendances at games are hugely important. But maybe a small number of extra games."

With such a swell of extra fixtures the prospect of Friday night games involving neighbouring teams is sure to be revisited.

However Cork chairman Ger Lane felt there was a lack of understanding about what is facing bigger dual counties from now on.


"With all due respect to some of the smaller counties that spoke here in favour of the motion, I think they have little knowledge of the impact that this will have on a county like Cork or Dublin where we have a lot of clubs.

"They are successful counties in both hurling and football and we would expect to be in the Super 8 in football. Granted, we wouldn't have been in the last couple of years but we would expect to be there and we would expect to be at the business end of the hurling championship every year.

"It's going to be a difficult one for us and it sends out a signal to dual counties that Croke Park are moving ahead regardless of our opinions."

Other motions carried will see Galway and Ulster teams compete in the Leinster U-21 Hurling Championship despite objections from a number of Leinster counties while Ulster teams will compete in the Leinster Minor Championship with Galway entering a three-team round robin involving the two beaten provincial finalists to determine two teams to qualify for All-Ireland semi-finals. Cork were successful with an amendment retaining All-Ireland U-21 Hurling semi-finals.

Inter-county tournaments from U-17 upwards will not be permitted with the exception of an U-19 hurling tournament after a Cork amendment with Longford's appeal to retain the popular Hastings Cup (U-20) falling on deaf ears.

A free-taking competition will decide qualifier, knock-out league and provincial club games if competing teams are still deadlocked after two periods of extra-time (20 minutes and 10 minutes) while counties will risk forfeiting a home league match if they embark on a training camp after the conclusions of the league, unless they fall within the permitted 17 or 10-day windows.

Irish Independent

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