Wednesday 13 November 2019

Factions frothing at mouth over hurling reform as mounting club concerns take centre stage

22 July 2017; Supporters make their way to the stadium prior to the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Clare and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
22 July 2017; Supporters make their way to the stadium prior to the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Clare and Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The players, the more elite players at least, are all for it. The less elite players are split down the middle. The general public is too distracted by events on the field. And so it is left to the committee men to work their way as best they can through the championship hurling proposals, to risk-assess and see if they are worth a punt.

As Cork hosts the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals this weekend, reducing the number of contestants to four, a different hurling championship for 2018 remains under active consideration. Behind closed doors it is exercising debate and in some cases raising temperatures. On July 6, the representatives of Munster Council convened at a meeting in Limerick to weigh up opinion. All had concerns. Almost all of those concerns revolved around the likely impact on local fixtures.

So while the players might want to see more games, which would be catered for under the proposed round-robin system offered on a three-year trial basis, club players would see little benefit. Nor would, on the evidence of the Munster Council meeting, many of the officers of the province where the game is in its rudest health.

Munster has a formidable hurling tradition and, unified, holds some sway politically - perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. Munster chairman Jerry O'Sullivan has declared his support for the proposals but some delegates were arguing in his presence over two weeks ago that it might be better to leave well enough alone. As ever there is a fear that the final outcome may not be in the best interests of predominantly hurling counties, given that the vote is national and not confined to places where All-Ireland hurling medal winners run for three and four generations.

But the most universal concern centred on the likely impact on club fixtures. This is a sensitive area for the GAA. Aogán Ó Fearghaíl has declared the club to be a core issue of his presidency, and the arrival of the Club Players' Association (CPA) has put added spotlight on the problem. On Tuesday, the CPA is due to hold a press conference in Dublin where it will unveil a master fixtures strategy in an attempt to find lasting and effective resolutions.

Inadequate and unreliable local fixture programmes continue to cause the GAA headaches, and an expanding inter-county games programme would seem to do little to relieve the burden. The new proposals promise a bigger schedule of matches before the quarter-final stages, even allowing for the disposal of the qualifiers. The GAA insists that club interests were paramount when they were working out the proposals and that much progress has been achieved in formulating a calendar more friendly to club players, with more time reserved for weekends free of inter-county interference.

"We looked very closely at club fixtures and have produced an outlying calendar," says Fergal McGill, the GAA's head of games administration. "It is by no means the finished article but it will cater for more club-only weekends - which is where 28 or more counties are not involved in any game that would affect the playing of club fixtures. The number of club-only weekends in the 2016 calendar would have been 16. The number we think we can achieve in the new calendar is around 24 or 25."

The issue raised at Munster Council level is that the more condensed round-robin structure in the provinces would not allow any room for club championship games to be played once the inter-county season begins in mid-May. Waterford are firmly against the proposals. Strong opposition was voiced at a recent county board meeting and also by representatives at the Munster Council meeting in early July. "No support at all for it," said a prominent county officer. "It will give less time to club championships. But also you are turning the championship into a league, and we have a league already."

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The delegate claimed that all counties had spoken against it. Asked if the provincial meeting on July was heated, he said: "It was very heated. They asked counties to come forward with amendments. I think Tipp have put in something. We have put in nothing, we are happy with how it is at the moment."

And it is not looking bad at the moment. This year's Munster championship has produced a high standard and Leinster had its most compelling and competitive provincial series in years. Both All-Ireland quarter-finals this weekend have crowd appeal and there are terrific prospects for the semi-finals and final before the contestants are even known. It is set to be the best hurling championship since 2013. Last year's hurling championship only ignited at the semi-final stage.

The qualifiers struggle to captivate, though - nobody can dispute this. Of the six matches over two rounds, the most competitive and interesting was between Waterford and Kilkenny, which went to extra-time and brought a first championship win for the Déise over the Cats since 1959. On the same day Tipperary wiped out Dublin, who in turn had beaten Laois by 16 points in their first qualifier. Waterford crushed Offaly. Westmeath put up a brave show against Tipp without ever looking like winning and the Kilkenny/Limerick match was close but far from enthralling.

When the football championship Super 8 proposals were backed, almost immediately there were calls that hurling should not be neglected. Munster counties seem to need more persuasion that this is the way forward. Limerick have potential gains from the proposals yet still retain doubts. Being able to host two games under a round-robin system would provide revenue to enable much-needed redevelopment of the Gaelic Grounds. The county has also languished in Division 1B of the league for several years. The new championship would offer Limerick the stream of high-profile matches they have been denied in the earlier months of the year.

"Most counties are open to change and new ideas," said a Limerick source, "but it can't be to the detriment of the clubs. We have seven rounds of our championships played already this year, between hurling and football." His worry is that further curtailment of club fixtures will have serious implications. "Soccer are moving their underage fixtures through the summer months. And it won't be long before their adult section is moved as well and it will compete with the hurling and football. If players don't get regular games during the summer months, they won't stay playing."

Even if an element of undue alarm exists, and some officers tend to regard any deviation from the norm with caution, there is a constituency of opinion which feels that the proposals are being unduly rushed and were inspired by the need to be seen to do something for hurling. Almost for the sake of it. Last Friday week was the final date for receipt of proposed amendments following the presentation of the proposals by Central Council at a meeting in June. It's believed around 14 counties submitted recommendations or observations, and there were further submissions from the provincial councils.

"What we are trying to do is make a major change to how our hurling championships are played," explains McGill. "There are different concerns. Some see local fixture concerns. Others are worried about the knock-on effect of having round-robins and playing so many times. At the end of the day no gun is being put to anyone's head. What we are trying to do here is give an alternative to how it might be played. If people want to choose those proposals, great; if they don't, no problem. We are offering this option, it is a three-year trial. We don't know how the football [Super 8] is going to pan out, that is why we are doing it as a three-year trial."

It has certainly provoked debate. A Cork source present at the Munster Council meeting said the mood was constructive. "The consensus was that there is a need for review but the biggest concern of the hurling counties in Munster was that it wouldn't necessarily free up the dates for the clubs. If you were successful till August your clubs wouldn't have any games. They reckon there would be four weeks in April but managers of the county teams would require two weeks before their teams are out in the championship. It was felt it needed to be tweaked."

Tipperary, along with Cork and Kilkenny, are believed to have serious reservations about the possible implications for their own fixtures. They tend to run championship fixtures while their county team is in competition but this would eliminate those window periods. It is believed that Tipperary have asked that the National League start on the last Sunday in January and end on the last Sunday in March to create more room to run club games. The provincial championships they feel ought to start on the weekend of May 21, the date of the Tipperary-Cork Munster tie this year, rather than the May 13 start date proposed if the current trial were to get the green light. Tipperary would also like to delay the provincial club draw until the MacCarthy Cup finalists are known and then offer those finalists' county champions a bye to the semi-finals of their provincial club championships.

A Tipperary source spoke of "strong opposition" from the floor at the Munster Council meeting. "We would feel that maybe the five weeks is too much with four games in the Munster championship, that there would have to be a break for one round of club games. You can't say 'play a game in April and see you again in August'. We have to represent our clubs as well. There has to be clear time-lines for club games."

Cork were able to fit in two rounds of local championship games in May and June this year, availing of three-week gaps between the county hurlers' championships games. There was anger too over a directive that all counties would have three votes at Special Congress when the restructure proposals will be decided upon on September 30. This would not have taken stock of variations in county size and the number of clubs, and it has since been changed amid protests. Counties will have half their normal Congress voting delegation instead.

Meetings were also held in Leinster to discuss the proposals. Galway are welcoming the plan as it will provide them with more games and the prospect of two home fixtures, with constant away travel having become an irritation for supporters. Home games would also be a major boost for the local economy and in promoting hurling in Galway, where rugby has risen in popularity. Proposed changes to the under 21 championship have also been favourably received by Galway. Kilkenny are said to be dubious of the changes proposed to reform the senior championship, although the county did not wish to make any comment. Dublin were unavailable for comment.

It's believed that the Leinster Council, having consulted with the counties earmarked for the proposed qualifier group of weaker sides, is suggesting six teams rather than five. It is also proposing that the group should produce a final between the top two counties to be played before a Munster or Leinster final. Laois is vehemently opposed to the qualifier proposal.

"One big concern," according to a high-ranking Leinster Council source, "is that the changes would reduce the number of knock-out games from over 20 down to 10. That could have a negative impact on crowd appeal and the quality and intensity of the games. You take Wexford and Kilkenny . . . 18,000 in Wexford Park this summer. If they meet in a round-robin you mightn't get six thousand."

The GAA says that the club fixture issue is being worked on independently of the proposals and won't be impacted notably if the proposals get the 60 per cent support needed at Special Congress.

"We are looking at alternatives," explains McGill. "For instance, one of the things we are very committed to is that if a round-robin comes in, you get rid of the quarter-finals in the National League. The quarter-finals were created to make an extra weekend for hurling. We think we can get rid of the league quarter-finals; that will generate two extra weekends for clubs. You can't do this on the back of a piece of paper, and each county will have to sit down and see how the new structures can accommodate the playing of games. And I believe they will have more time rather than less time."

McGill points to the entire month of April and first weekend in May as being a county exclusion zone, free for club fixtures to run unhindered. "It is a movable feast, it will depend on what the final championship structures are, but still in broad terms you will have a period from the end of the league to the start of the championship free," he says.

He cites moves like bringing forward the All-Ireland hurling final by a fortnight, the "decoupling" of minor from adult fixtures, and the removal last year of the National League semi-finals in football as beneficial to club fixtures.

"The vast majority of club games nationally have been played in the month of September," says McGill. "That will change. They will be played earlier in the year, nearer to the summer months. I think August will be very busy for club activity and September will be especially busy. And the counties out earlier will start using July."

The fears expressed around the country over the implications for club fixtures, some outlining very stark scenarios, are not knee-jerk, he says. "What I would say is, as the thing pans out, counties will see that there is more time generated for clubs. It will require them to do things slightly differently, that's for sure, they need to get their heads around that."

There is a view too that county committees can be creatures of habit when it comes to fixtures planning and not inclined towards movement from set templates. "It won't happen overnight," admits McGill. "There will be a bedding-in period."

What the CPA comes forward with will become clearer on Tuesday, when they make their plan public. McGill said the GAA had met with the CPA a couple of months ago and heard what they had to say. "We have seen their fixtures plan. I would suggest our draft plans create more time for club fixtures than theirs, to be honest."

A spokesperson for the CPA said: "Our position on it, all the data tells you, is that we have 86.5 per cent of players totally dissatisfied with club fixtures and that should be worrying for all of us in the GAA that that could happen. In any other walk of life that surely represents a crisis. We bring incremental change in the GAA, done with best of intentions, but without a master plan you can't deal with all the anomalies."

He said that the idea that people will stay loyal to the GAA no longer holds true, citing "alarming" drop-out rates from an Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) report in 2013 compared to other sports.

What result is he hoping for? "We are trying to make the case that, lads, we have a problem. The Church would not listen to people, where people could be heard. There were no forums to be heard so now we have these beautiful empty cathedrals."

The CPA's request that the Super 8 plan in football be parked was not taken on board, nor attempts to have it recognised as the official club players' body at Congress this year.

The GPA has a different slant. Feedback showed that 70 per cent of Liam MacCarthy squads were supportive of the new championship proposals but 50 per cent of squads were not in favour of the current qualifier group structure as only one team can progress from the group. The proposals do not have a majority support from squads participating in the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher competitions, with only 40 per cent supportive of the structure. Squads have expressed concerns that the scheduling of the competitions is too condensed and does not do enough for the promotion or development of hurling in these counties.

In a statement, the GPA said they were satisfied that there would be no negative impact on club games.

Whether these reforms are good for hurling, aside from the club argument, must also be teased out. Incremental policies may not be ideal and too piecemeal, as the CPA spokesperson outlined, but it tends to be the GAA way. Finding a GAA solution to a GAA problem.

New proposals explained

Under the new proposals, the Leinster and Munster championships would be played on a round-robin basis, with five rounds of four matches each. Kilkenny, Galway, Dublin, Wexford and Offaly play in the revamped Leinster championship and Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Limerick and Clare compete in Munster.

As now, the winners of Leinster and Munster would go straight though to the All-Ireland semi-finals, with the defeated finalists qualifying for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

However, the proposed restructure also has a provincial qualifying group, which would consist of Laois, Westmeath, Kerry, Antrim and Carlow.

The third team in each province would either progress directly to the All-Ireland quarter-final or alternatively play the winner of the qualifier group.

The five qualifier teams would also play two home and two away games, with the winner gaining promotion to the Leinster championship the following season. However, if Kerry or another Munster team wins the provincial qualifier group, they will play a play-off against the fifth-placed team in Munster to determine who stays in the top tier.

The winner of the provincial qualifier group will also play a play-off against the third-placed team in Munster or Leinster, in alternate years, to determine who advances to the All-Ireland quarter-final.

In 2018, the third-placed team in Munster would face the provincial qualifier group winner with a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final at stake.

The format for the qualifier group will be the same as the Munster and Leinster championships: each team is guaranteed four games, two home and two away. They will be played at the same time as the games in the provincial series.

There is also an incentive for future Christy Ring Cup winners as the team which wins the competition in 2018 and subsequent years will be promoted to the qualifier group.

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