Tuesday 22 October 2019

Donnchadh Boyle: 'Clash of Munster and McDonagh finals shows challenges tiered competitions face'


John Horan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
John Horan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

On October 19, long after the dust has settled from the 2019 hurling and football championships, the GAA is set to call a Special Congress where it's thought the organisation's main decision-making body will be asked to make a far-reaching decision.

Between adapting Rule 42 that made way for the playing of other sports in Croke Park, officially recognising the GPA and the scrapping of rule 12 which banned members of the British security forces from joining the organisation, the GAA hasn't been shy about making significant changes since the turn of the Millennium.

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Special Congress won't be asked to deal with anything quite so significant later this year but delegates will be presented with another milestone decision when they are asked to vote on the introduction of a second tier into the football championship.

The GAA have trialled similar concepts before. For years there was an All-Ireland 'B' championship while the Tommy Murphy Cup, which ran from 2004 to 2009, was never loved.

Summing up its demise, then GAA president Nickey Brennan didn't mince his words when he said in 2008: "It's dead in the water - it's as simple as that."

Still, the issue never really went away, with every one-sided game that featured a top-echelon side doling out a hammering to one of the also-rans being used as an example of why football needed change.

Equally, each win against the grain was used an example of what the GAA would lose if the status quo was tampered with. With such a broad church of opinions, it was the nettle no one wanted to grasp.

As it stands, every part of the GAA from club to camogie to hurling uses tiers with the exception of senior inter-county football. At the start of every season, teams from New York to London and everywhere in between all start out in pursuit of Sam Maguire, regardless of the gulf in ability.

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To his credit, GAA president John Horan has banged the drum again. He's convinced that if the second-tier competition was marketed in the right way and given enough prominence, the counties would buy into it.

"It's about how you present it to people and get people to buy into it and then hopefully you will deliver it," Horan said late last year.

Horan has been true to his word. The two proposals that were unveiled this week appear to tick a lot of the boxes. Broadly speaking, Division 3 and 4 teams would have their own competition but they retain both their shot at provincial glory and even the All-Ireland if they are good enough.

There are commitments made around televising the final as part of an All-Ireland quarter-final or an All-Ireland hurling semi-final, depending on which option delegates vote for. There's also suggestion that an All-Star team will be selected from the competition and brought on tour.

It is all well-intentioned. The proposals are designed to show that a second tier wouldn't mean second-class treatment. But the GAA calendar is so crammed that it means there's only, through no fault of anyone's, so much exposure a competition like this can expect.

Last weekend, three national hurling finals were played across the Ring, Rackard and Meagher competitions but they were drowned out in the noise of three provincial football finals.

There's a similar situation this weekend. On Sunday, the second most important competition in hurling is down for decision when Laois take on Westmeath. The game is down as curtain-raiser to the Leinster final between Kilkenny and Wexford in Croke Park so has been given a fitting billing in one sense.

And there's plenty at stake too. The Laois senior hurlers haven't played at Croke Park since 2005 and are looking for a return to top-flight hurling. But while the game is available to watch on the TG4 YouTube channel, it goes up against the Munster decider.

Considering Semple Stadium was full when Tipperary played Limerick a couple of weeks ago with much less at stake, you can only imagine how much more attention it will demand with silverware and a place in an All-Ireland semi-final at place.

On Sunday afternoon, the hurlers of Laois or Westmeath will strike a blow for the game in their county. You just wonder how many people will be aware of it.

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