Sunday 25 August 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Why protect certain species when almost the entire ecosystem is endangered?

Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

There are many good and great things the late philosopher Denis Dutton said and did over the years – a favourite being the setting up of the bad writing contest with the aim of exposing "pretentious, swaggering gibberish" used as an attempt to demonstrate intelligence in academia. But one shard of thought from his mind will stand the test of troublesome modern times better than most.

"Dumbing down takes many forms," he once said. "Art that is good for you, museums that flatter you, universities that increase your self-esteem. Culture, after all, is really about you."

It's one we should keep in mind considering the place sport holds in that culture, especially as we allow it to be vulgarised. The Snooker Shoot-Out. The shot clock in tennis. Twenty20 cricket. Golf Sixes. There used to be art in patience, beauty in time, craft in perseverance, but we've sold out to the lowest bidder for instant gratification.

It's as if to say; why learn chess when you can trade down to checkers? Why wait for wine when beer is brewed much faster? Why teach a man to fish when it's easier just to buy him some? It's here Hurling 11s finds its grimy niche.

The concept though is merely the spit in the face after the punch to the gut of the sport. Business and culture are often at odds, but there is one principle that applies across this chasm. You saturate your own market before attempting to find new ones, but look at how the truly beautiful game has ignored this.

Dying in large tracts at home, it just goes abroad - as if taking a sun holiday is the best idea when a late mortgage warning arrives in the letter box. Yet imagine how those, out of the spotlight, who keep hurling on the road with neither help nor recognition felt as four top teams shacked up in Boston to play a bastardised version of the game.

Recently, on All Star night, many criticised RTÉ for their coverage of the Champions 15. Three teams made up from each of the lower tiers were awarded, but the national broadcaster offered them no more than a flash of their camera. Inadvertently this was hugely fitting and steered clear of dreaded hypocrisy, as why treat these players better in tuxedos than they are treated when lining out in county colours? Besides, the GAA are the custodians of the sport and if they show a disregard for their own game, it's not up to a TV channel to have to rectify it.

The way we go about hurling reminds of schooling in some emerging countries, if of course only trivial in comparison. There, when voting becomes the right of everyone, the elite class keep the masses down by making sure good education only comes at a cost, and only those with that good education can qualify to be part of that elite class, and so the cycle continues.

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Indeed when football announced it's new format for next year's championship, one of the first to comment on the small-ball code's future was former GAA president, Nickey Brennan. "Something similar in football and hurling would be interesting," said the Kilkenny native. "Ideally, we'd have a top 10 in hurling." The mask had slipped.

We all knew the 10 but why are they deemed worthy? Why protect certain species when almost the entire ecosystem is endangered? Why Dublin, as they verge on 80 years without an All Ireland and 57 without even making a final? Why Wexford, with one such crown in 41 years come next season? Why Offaly, who haven't mustered two championship wins in the same summer since 2010? Why anyone, as sport should be about earning it and certainly not about being given it.

In the end hurling went with those 10 'traditional' teams for next year, but if rugby regularly and oft deservedly gets a rap on the knuckles for being an old boys' club, well look over here everybody. While those favourite few get indulged with that protectionist format from now on, those below them still live on the dump. It's not that the tiered system has been bad - it's been hugely competitive - rather it's about the treatment and the openings for those that thrive within it.

Last year's Ring Cup for instance, Kildare boss Joe Quaid complained that "realistically it's not a championship; it's a tournament played over seven weeks. It's mad really. It's a case of playing it and getting it out of the way. People that get to the finals, the latest they'll be playing is June 10 and the Leinster Championship won't have even started".

And Antrim's Sambo McNaughton backed this up, alluding to the fact they could be finished before having had the light for a full evening training session. In 2018 it's not much different, like the ugly twin locked in the room when the guests are over for dinner.

It's true not all counties give hurling the compassion and nurture it deserves and needs but many do. Kerry are unrecognisable from the recent past but as a punishment had a glass ceiling bolted down, meaning Munster won't be happening. Kildare last year were criticised for importing players but they were needed as one of the reasons their own wouldn't line-out was in 2014 when, for six weeks on the bounce, they played in tier two, and upon winning it were asked to make it seven on the bounce in a promotion play-off they lost.

Wicklow have improved, and Meath made the step-up, but with no increase in funding to try and help them sustain their progress. Carlow and Westmeath have triumphed against all odds on a yearly basis, but in 2014 it was announced they along with Antrim and Laois would get an investment of €900,000 to split over five years – just €45,000 per county per year or barely enough to hire a development officer.

On top of this just €100,000 was allocated to the other lower-tier counties, meaning if divvied up between those 21 sides, that would work out at €952.38 a season.

Money of course matters as we have seen with Dublin. Part of their massive investment from the GAA, along with the €1m a year for five years that came from the taxpayer via the Irish Sports Council, went towards resuscitating the hurling corpse in the capital. Many would like to slight this as a waste, but while results have been overshadowed because of the footballers, improvement has to take into account where you started.

That Dublin could win provincial or league titles before the cash flowed would have been laughed away. You do need good people to spend it but in many places they are there, yet are turned down as that cash goes instead to gimmicks in Fenway Park with no real long-term benefit. Throw on the fur coat as that will cover the lack of knickers.

It's not just the money either but the attitude. In 2016, when Offaly were blown out of the qualifiers, Tomás Mulcahy said that they need to play at a higher level to attract interest and up speed. He was right as in such a skilled game, a higher level is a foundation regardless of results there, but the sport stops that access for those that ought to get it through their results.

In the league that door is slammed shut due to six-team divisions. What would be wrong with copying football here too? Based on last season a Division One next time around would be Tipperary, Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny, Clare, Wexford, Galway, Dublin while Division Two would be Limerick, Offaly, Kerry, Laois, Carlow, Antrim, Kildare, Westmeath and so on.

There'd be hidings and humiliations but you allow crawling before walking, rather than amputating the legs if walking isn't instant. Only that's what has happened. Just compare the codes. If Dublin, Kerry and Mayo have been the three best footballing counties over the last five championships, 22 of the 30 other sides have gotten a game against one of them.

If Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway take the three top spots in hurling in the same period only nine other counties have gotten a shot (outside that 'traditonal' 10, Laois have three times played Galway, and Westmeath after their incredible work got one game against Galway back on 5 June, 2016). Meanwhile with next year's league taken into account, across the last five seasons, 14 counties will have played in the highest division in football, growing and getting better. In hurling that number is a measly eight.

The GAA rightly allude to themselves as a cultural organisation with hurling the jewel in that crown and, as Dutton alluded to so wisely, culture is about you. That ought to be all of you though, not just those that choose to keep it for themselves, at home and when busy neglecting and dumbing down the sport on junkets abroad.

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