Sunday 19 August 2018

Comment - How can a county that loses three of five games remain in contention for the All-Ireland title?

If Wexford beat Kilkenny in the early rounds of next year’s championship, it won’t have anything like the same impact. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
If Wexford beat Kilkenny in the early rounds of next year’s championship, it won’t have anything like the same impact. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Waterford chairman Paddy Joe Ryan stretched his argument well beyond the bounds of gross exaggeration when warning that if Special Congress backed proposals for changes to the All-Ireland hurling championship format, it would be "the worst decision in the history of the GAA".

His stark assessment may have been designed to influence delegates whose stance would be decided by the debate rather than a mandate from their counties.

If so, it didn't work as a majority (62-38 per cent) voted in favour of restricting the Leinster and Munster championships to five counties each, playing on a 'round robin' sequence.

Their decision marked the 18th format change (nine each in the championship and Allianz League) in 20 years, an astonishing statistic that certainly undermines the argument that the GAA is slow to change.

It moved pretty quickly on the latest adjustments, reacting to claims that the introduction of football's 'Super 8' next year would leave hurling short of exposure in the latter part of the season.

That will still be the case, of course, since the extra hurling games will be played in May-June, well before the launch of the 'Super 8'.

While Ryan's 'worst decision in the history of the GAA' comment was over the top, there are solid grounds for contending that it's certainly not a candidate for the 'best decision' category either.

In fact it's part of a package where the colourful wrapping gives the wrong impression of what's in the box.

There was no pressing need to change the hurling championship.

Playing Munster and Leinster (complete with some guests from elsewhere) in a knockout format and allowing all provincial losers a second chance in the All-Ireland qualifiers was working well.

The new system replaces the provincial knockouts with a 'round robin', where the top two after four games qualify for the finals.

In effect, it's Leinster and Munster Leagues, where the main selling point is the guarantee of two 'home' games for every county. And yes, that is a plus but does it outweigh the disadvantages? Not in my view.

There's still something special about the knock-out dimension in the championship.

Okay, so teams beaten early on are re-admitted to the All-Ireland race but it still hurts to lose in the provinces. Tipperary were devastated after losing to Cork in the Munster quarter-final this year while the Rebel takeover of Thurles afterwards captured the essence of a championship Sunday, Does anyone believe that a similar result in a 'round robin' would have anything like the same impact?

Three weeks after Cork's win, Innovate Wexford Park throbbed on a Saturday evening as Wexford beat Kilkenny in the championship for the first time in 13 years.

It was a special occasion for Lee Chin and Co, sending hopes of a first Leinster title success since 2004 soaring.

Galway wrecked that dream but for three exciting weeks optimism increased in Wexford, generating an unforgettable atmosphere.

They had beaten Kilkenny, who could do nothing more to interfere with their provincial ambitions. Whatever the rest of the year held for Wexford, knocking Kilkenny out of Leinster was a major achievement.

If Wexford beat Kilkenny in the early rounds of next year's championship, it won't have anything like the same impact.

And so it goes with other counties in Leinster and Munster too. League hurling has its place as a warm-up for the championship, not as such a major part of the main event.

There's also the issue of possible 'dead rubbers', where the final series of 'round robin' games may not count for one or more teams.

There's another dimension too, one that appears to have gone largely unnoticed.

In certain circumstances, it will be possible for a team to reach the Leinster and/or Munster finals by winning two and losing two games. A team could then lose the final and still qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

That's three defeats - possibly even consecutively - from five games, yet the All-Ireland dream would still remain alive.

Indeed, given the very competitive nature of the Munster Championship, where the five contenders are fairly evenly matched, it's quite probable that one of the finalists will have lost two games.

It's also possible that a county which lost three games (two 'round robin' and the final) would recover and go on to win the All-Ireland title.

Surely that's not good for a championship competition which has only 12 contenders?

Kilkenny wanted a decision on the proposals for change to be deferred for a year to gauge how football's 'round robin' format worked out.

That was never going to be accepted since it would have looked ridiculous to call a Special Congress and then defer the main item for a year. However, Kilkenny had a point.

Instead, the vote went ahead, with many counties outside the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier ignoring the reservations of some of those who are.

That's democracy but it's not good governance.

Irish Independent

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