East heads west as Galway earn home comforts from 2015
Tribesmen granted right to host Leinster SHC games from next season – if provincial rivals play ball
Leinster senior hurling championship games will be on their way across the Shannon from next year if Galway can strike a deal with their rivals.
Galway have played all 13 of their Leinster games east of the Shannon over the last five years – a pattern that will continue this summer, beginning against Laois in Portlaoise on Sunday – but they have now been issued with an open invitation to enter into home and away arrangements from next year on.
Leinster CEO Michael Delaney said that since Galway seniors were now regarded as a permanent fixture in the Leinster championship, they were eligible for home fixtures, provided they could do a deal with other counties.
"Galway will be treated like any other county. If they can sort out home and away arrangements with counties in Leinster, we will be happy to go along with that. In fact, we'd welcome it," said Delaney.
Antrim, who entered the Leinster championship with Galway in 2009, hosted two games in this year's provincial qualifiers. The question of Galway staging Leinster games was largely ignored over recent years, pending a review at the end of various experimental periods.
Galway and Antrim entered Leinster initially in a three-year experiment, which was further extended as part of an evolving All-Ireland championship structure. Now, both are officially regarded as being in Leinster on a permanent basis, with Antrim in the qualifiers while Galway enter at the quarter-final or semi-final stages, depending on how they fared in the previous year.
"The experimental periods are over now. For senior championship purposes, Galway are in Leinster and will be treated like any other county. Home and away arrangements are working well among some counties in Leinster and I see no reason why it wouldn't work just as well with Galway," said Delaney.
He believes that Galway's and Antrim's switch to Leinster was good for all sides and since it's now formally included under rule, no further discussions will take place. Neither Galway nor Antrim compete in Leinster at U-21 or minor level and are showing no signs of adopting the senior model.
Galway's only home championship game over the past five years was in 2011 when they beat Clare in an All-Ireland qualifier in Pearse Stadium, so a home and away arrangement with Leinster opposition would be warmly welcomed by supporters.
There was considerable opposition in Galway to the switch into the Leinster championship but it has largely dissipated since the benefits became clear. And while it hasn't led to Galway winning an All-Ireland title for the first time since 1988, it has brought their season into line with all other contenders.
Galway's continued success at minor, U-21 and club level has persuaded them not to apply to join Leinster in those grades. Antrim have stayed outside Leinster in those categories too. It was hoped that the move to Leinster would boost Antrim seniors, but so far, it hasn't worked out that way.
They won all four qualifier games this year but the last five seasons were extremely disappointing, with only two wins from seven games.
Former Antrim player and manager, 'Sambo' McNaughton believes that too much was expected from the switch to Leinster.
"Some people thought it would have Antrim going for Leinster titles inside a few years but that was never going to happen. Unless something is done to get our juvenile and development squads playing against teams from the south, not much will change.
"There's only one way for young Antrim lads to improve and that's to be playing against the better teams from the south. We should be going over the border ever weekend, taking busloads of young lads from U-12, U-14 up to play against lads from the south, whether in blitzes or other games. The same goes for other Ulster counties.
"The buses should be paid for by Croke Park. Give young fellas from Ulster a chance to compete. They are just as skilful and interested as lads from Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway, Cork or wherever but they're not playing at the same pace and tempo all the time. And they can't, unless they get to play against lads from the top counties down south."
McNaughton singled out Kilkenny chairman Ned Quinn as a man who has done a lot to help Antrim hurling at underage level by organising games between teams from the two counties and believes that it's an example of what can be achieved with goodwill on all sides, including Croke Park.
"Getting around the country is much easier since the roads were improved. I can travel from Cushendall to Croke Park in a little over two hours. It's motorway all the way from Belfast to Cork. We've got to get buses on those roads bringing young lads from Antrim around the country. I've been saying that for years but will it happen? Or will we be having the same conversation in 10 years' time, with nothing having changed?"
He sees no real improvement in Antrim at senior level since the move to Leinster but still holds out some hope against Wexford.
"Antrim ran Wexford to a point in the league so we would always be hopeful. We always are. The thing is though, that having the seniors alone in Leinster won't make a lot of difference in the longer terms," he said.
An interesting by-product of Galway's and Antrim's involvement in the Leinster hurling championship is the possible impact it could have on Football Review Committee proposals to re-locate some Leinster and Ulster counties in the Connacht and Munster championships so as to have eight in each province.
It has met with serious opposition so far, but the hurling experience suggests that crossing boundaries can work in certain circumstances.