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Comment: Faithful show up format folly of the new hurling championship system

 

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Kevin Martin has shown his Leinster rivals Brian Cody, Mícheál Donoghue, Pat Gilroy and Davy Fitzgerald that Offaly won’t go quietly from the top tier in Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

Kevin Martin has shown his Leinster rivals Brian Cody, Mícheál Donoghue, Pat Gilroy and Davy Fitzgerald that Offaly won’t go quietly from the top tier in Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Kevin Martin has shown his Leinster rivals Brian Cody, Mícheál Donoghue, Pat Gilroy and Davy Fitzgerald that Offaly won’t go quietly from the top tier in Leinster. Photo: Sportsfile

If, as the proverb goes, 'coming events cast their shadows before', Offaly's stunning victory over Dublin in Croke Park last Saturday evening will have left those who voted through the changes to the All-Ireland hurling championship feeling very uncomfortable.

Or at least it should. They congratulated each other on their progressive thinking after the Special Congress last September, having boxed off the Leinster and Munster championships into two neat groups of five.

That's fine for Munster's 'Big Five', while Kerry are happy to work elsewhere, either in Leinster - where they played for the last two years - or now in the Tier 2 Joe McDonagh Cup, where they will join Carlow, Laois, Meath, Westmeath and Antrim.

It's different in Leinster, which has a rather large western beast on the premises. In fact, it grew so big last year that nobody in Leinster, or beyond, could snare it.

This year, Galway join Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin and Offaly on the round-robin-formatted eastern circuit, after which the bottom county will be relegated to the Joe McDonagh Cup tier for 2019. It's non-negotiable: no play-off, no second chances.

Belief

That's why Offaly's 13-point win over Dublin last Saturday becomes interesting. They won't admit it, of course, but there was a widespread belief among the delegates who voted to reduce Leinster to five counties last September that Offaly would finish bottom and be replaced, most probably, by Laois, Westmeath or Carlow.

It was insulting to Offaly. Yes, they have been in lean territory for quite some time but it was still puzzling how a county that won four All-Ireland senior titles, nine Leinster titles (and reached another nine finals) and an Allianz League title since 1980 could be ejected from their own province.

They accumulated a far bigger title haul than Limerick, Waterford or Clare in the same period, yet none of that trio will be thrown out of Munster if they finish last in their round robin.

Unlike Leinster, where the fifth-placed team is automatically relegated, Munster have a safety net to protect their 'Big Five'.

Even if Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup, they will get into the Munster campaign only if they beat the bottom team.

Effectively, Congress backed a special deal for Munster while insisting that one of five automatically drops out of Leinster. Too bad lads, that's the way it has to be.

It's not, of course, but that's what the overall package, based on five-county provinces, demanded. And then along comes Kevin Martin and an Offaly team that tore the first strip off the script last Saturday when they beat Dublin by 13 points.

Nobody saw it coming, except perhaps the Offaly camp. Suddenly, a possible new scenario arose. Maybe Offaly won't finish bottom in Leinster after all.

Could it be that Dublin, league winners in 2011 and Leinster winners in 2013, drop out? Or Wexford, whose revival is doing so much for hurling.

Their appearance in the Leinster final last year swelled the attendance past 60,000, yet if they finish bottom of the round robin in June, they won't even be in the provincial championship next year.

Surely, it's impossible that Kilkenny would be barred from Leinster? Finish bottom and they will. Galway? The same applies there,

The only certainty is that one from Galway, Kilkenny, Dublin Wexford and Offaly won't be competing in Leinster next year.

They would still have a route into the All-Ireland series if they reached the Joe McDonagh Cup final, which further illustrates the lack of logic in the new system.

Two counties (Joe McDonagh Cup finalists) not deemed good enough to compete in the provinces are allowed into the All-Ireland championship, which is obviously the higher grade competition.

Here are the key questions. How did Munster get a much better deal than Leinster? More importantly, why was it considered necessary to restrict the Leinster Championship to five counties, one of which is an outsider?

Why not make it six at least, or possibly eight? What impact will relegation from Leinster have on the county involved?

Consider what it will be like for the manager at the start of next year. It's conceivable that the team involved could be in Division 1A, yet not allowed to compete in Leinster.

They could even win the league title and still not be allowed into the provincial championship. How perverse is that?

Many of the top- and mid-tier hurling counties opposed the new system but it was still voted in on a 62-38 per cent majority.

Clearly, lower-ranked counties, who weren't directly affected by the changes, backed the proposal. It's democracy but not the type that serves hurling.

Here's a prediction. The new format, voted in on an experimental three-year trial basis, won't last beyond two seasons and will even come under pressure at the end of the 2018 campaign.

And so it should, because any system that discourages, rather than encourages, counties needs to be zapped quickly.

Irish Independent