Tuesday 13 November 2018

End of an era as GAA looks to shunt Railway Cups off line!

Martin Breheny

FOUR GAA competitions, including the 74 year-old Railway Cups and the 62 year-old Oireachtas hurling, will be scrapped today if a proposal by the Games Administration Committee is accepted by Central Council.

The All-Ireland 'B' football championship and the South-East hurling League also face the chop as the GAC moves to streamline the fixtures' schedule.

While the recommendation to drop the latter two is likely to be supported, the Central Council meeting will almost certainly be sharply divided on whether or not to turn off the life support on the ailing Railway Cups and Oireachtas hurling.

The alternative is to seek to inject new life into two competitions which have become a seriously devalued currency since the glory days when they attracted massive crowds to Croke Park for the finals on St Patrick's Day.

There are no provisions in the fixtures' diary to play the Railway Cups this year while the Oireachtas hurling has fallen into such a state of disrepair that the 1999 final between Galway and Kilkenny wasn't played until December 2000.

GAC chairman, Pauric Duffy, said that his committee felt the time had come to re-evaluate the competition structure in an ever-changing fixtures' climate.

"Quite simply, we can't see where the Railway Cup football could be fitted in this year. Playing it in January was not an option because of the All-Stars trip to Dubai and there are no other obvious dates available.

"In the past, we have played the Railway Cup hurling at the end of the year but, frankly, it hasn't met with much enthusiasm. If you ask players should the Railway Cups be retained, they will say yes, but it still seems to be low down their priority list.

"Clearly there is a problem with the Oireachtas hurling when we couldn't play the 1999 final until last December while the All-Ireland 'B' football championship has lost much of its appeal.

"As for the South-East hurling League, it was introduced to fill a gap at the end of the season once the NHL was switched to the one calendar year.

"But the GAC are now proposing that some hurling League games be played in November which would make the South-East League unnecessary," said Duffy.

He argues that the new All-Ireland FC will put added pressure on the fixtures' programme so it makes sense to drop struggling competitions. The Ulster Council have decided against holding the Dr McKenna Cup this year because of the earlier start to the championship.

"I know that some people are reluctant to drop competitions but interest has waned and with so many other county and club fixtures to be fitted in, the GAC believe it's time for a change.

"We're not proposing it just for the sake of getting rid of competitions we're doing it because we feel it would benefit everybody."

Clare's Noel Walsh and Donegal's Brian McEniff will be among those opposing the proposal to drop the Railway Cups. Walsh wants a special committee set up to devise methods of reviving the inter-provincial series and will make strident arguments for the retention of the competition.

"It shouldn't be beyond our ingenuity to come up with a formula to give the Railway Cups new life. It can be done with proper sponsorship and marketing. I believe the Railway Cups should be retained because the players want them.

"Also, it is the only chance that players from the weaker counties get to mix with their counterparts from the stronger counties on an equal basis. The Railway Cups are an integral part of the GAA scene and we should not let them go."

McEniff, who has been a lifelong devotee of the Railway Cup as an Ulster player and manager, says that while he understands the GAC's problem in accommodating the competition, it deserves to be retained because of the interest among the players.

"Talk to the players and you will find that 98 per cent of them want the Railway Cups retained."

While Walsh and McEniff will make eloquent arguments for the retention of the Railway Cups, critics will point to the lack of public interest, which alternates between very little and zero. And while players will say they don't want the competition scrapped, there has to be a question mark against their conviction, certainly outside of Ulster.

Connacht haven't won the Railway Cup football title since 1969 while Munster have only won one football title in the past 19 years. Players chosen for the provincial teams still regard it as an honour but there is no great sadness among those who are omitted.

When, for instance was the last time a provincial selection led to a controversy? Whereas county managers and officials will protest over All-Star selections, they never complain over the composition of provincial teams.

That is in marked contrast to the glory days of the Railway Cups in the 1950s and early '60s when selections regularly led to heated debate.

Supporters of the Railway Cups believe that with imaginative marketing and promotion, interest would be revived and point to the manner in which the inter-provincial rugby championship has enjoyed a huge increase in popularity in recent years.

Whatever the merits of retaining the Railway Cups and boosting them with marketing, the Oireachtas hurling, South-East League and 'B' football seem doomed. The Oireachtas and 'B' football are no longer relevant while the South-East League will be superfluous if, as expected, the NHL, reverts to a November start.

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