Hurling folk want change to championship format amid fears game could be swamped by Super 8
Twenty years ago, hurling took the lead on reform, fundamentally altering its inter-county championships. Delegates at the previous year's Congress had approved the changes that would enable beaten Munster and Leinster hurling finalists to remain in the All-Ireland championships, resurfacing at the quarter-final stage.
Tipperary dusted themselves down from a beating by Clare in the Munster final in Cork and made their way to Clones for a meeting with Down. They cleared that hurdle and in the first test of public approval of the new system then defeated the Leinster champions, Wexford, to reach the All-Ireland final through the back door.
From there, change has been part of the championship, football and hurling, with the precedent established that the defeated could live to fight another day. As last weekend demonstrated so vividly, proposals coming to Congress now are being carefully crafted, with an eye to their prospects, and the sales-pitch is executed well in advance.
Once principle was established that the original formats were not sacrosanct, change has never looked unfeasible. Now hurling is looking to move again, acting on the decision at Congress last weekend to introduce eight more football championship games at peak season in 2018.
The jewel in the crown, as Aogán Ó Fearghail described hurling, is feeling that sense of marginalisation that is a constant part of its sometimes bizarre existence. There is no reason to dispute that those fears are genuine, and all agree, whatever measure of concern they deem appropriate, that the imbalance in matches between the two codes does not augur well for hurling's profile.
Reaction has varied from extreme concern, such as that voiced by Ger Loughnane, to a calmer assessment from Hurling Development Committee (HDC) chairman Paudie O'Neill when he spoke a few days ago.
"The first thing I would say, you know the phrase young people use, 'cool the jets'? I think this applies here," said O'Neill, a highly successful coach at club and county levels. "I can understand why people say we need to change the championship, but I think a considered response is needed, rather than a reactionary one. We need to sit back on it and reflect, we need to do a lot of thinking about it. (And find out) what are the wider implications of the changes in football?
"We would all love to see more top-class hurling matches being played but you have to factor that in with other things - that obviously includes club players. So any changes brought about would have to be cognisant of the impact on club players. The other thing I would say is that ultimately the Management Committee and Central Council will have to make that call and start the process."
O'Neill's group has been focused on broadening the game's reach, something that has exercised the minds of pioneers and dreamers for generations. In 1981 Offaly won the All-Ireland for the first time, and no new winner has been seen since. In football, four counties have won the Sam Maguire for the first time in the last 25 years.
Offaly is now a popular example of hurling's reversion to type: the big three counties still enjoy the lion's share of the titles won, and Clare are the only team to break that stranglehold in recent times back to Offaly's All-Ireland win in 1998. In both cases those counties had lost earlier in the championship, benefiting from reformed structures designed to give teams a second shot. Normally these second opportunities favour the powerful - as Tipp showed in 2010, Kilkenny in 2013, and Cork in 2004 - but reform is a constant consideration in a hurling championship with so few realistic contenders.
Nickey Brennan's alarming words about hurling's future at Congress in Cavan in 1994 were echoes of similar worries in the past and others that would follow, like those we are hearing now. The year after Brennan's speech, of course, Clare won the All-Ireland after an 81-year wait. The years that followed are among the most memorable in hurling for the diversity of winners, and the promotion and marketing of the game.
Last year hurling went through a slow-burning provincial series and only took off at the time of the All-Ireland semi-finals. In the space of a week Tipp and Galway played out an invigorating match in Croke Park and Waterford and Kilkenny had an epic draw and another captivating replay six days later. Much of the season did not inspire, but again reform helped. Waterford took a hiding from Tipp in the Munster final and managed to rebuild their confidence, to salvage something worthwhile.
If hurling is the jewel in the crown, after the events of last weekend's Congress it is now in need of some polishing. Gaelic football, the game of the masses, has stolen a march with the Super 8. On Thursday, Ó Fearghail said it was a priority for him to begin the process of finding out how to serve hurling's needs. At Congress he said he understood the concerns of hurling interests but "rejected" the idea that the game would be pushed to the periphery by the enhanced football championship. He talked of positive initiatives including the appointment of Martin Fogarty as national hurling director, and the record numbers playing the game.
"We certainly need to put the focus now on the inter-county hurling championship," said Ó Fearghail. "It is solid, it is strong, it has incredible appeal - we want to make sure it keeps all that. What I am talking about are genuine issues that some of our Central Council members and county chairmen, who supported the football proposals, felt needed looking at; like should we now look at the possibility of a small invigoration of the hurling championship."
Ó Fearghail said he didn't want to see people exaggerate the impact of the changes, noting that the Football League semi-finals were being dropped and the All-Ireland semi-finals would be played over the same weekend. "There was always a quarter-final so now a county will have two extra matches," he added.
"Let that discussion happen now, between myself and the ard stiúrthóir (Páraic Duffy) and the counties involved in the race for Liam MacCarthy. We will listen to what the counties are saying. I am not going to tell Limerick, Cork or Tipperary that this is what you need. We will listen to them."
But the hurling man has his own mind and idiosyncrasies. In the move towards a black card he was less inclined to follow the lead of football and deemed that reform unnecessary for his own game. The GAA has learned that in order to guide reform successfully through Congress they need sometimes to separate hurling and football, who are not always on the same page. Other useful tips to succeed include offering reform on a trial basis, as is the case with the Super 8.
Nickey Brennan sees hurling's small base as an impediment to a Super 8 duplicate. "I would imagine that it's something that the HDC would get their teeth into pretty much immediately and gauge opinion," he states. "It is wrong to be expressing negativity about football. Let's go out and see what we can do to the hurling championship to redress the imbalance. There is no point in roaring and shouting about it, I think it is the time for cool heads. I think the body best suited for that now is the HDC.
"Maybe hurling can't afford to wait around. There will potentially be consequences in 2018. The expectation is that the Super 8 would bring high intensity and high-profile games with saturation coverage and that hurling will be swamped. It may even be possible to get the discussion going very quickly and hold a special Congress at the end of the year. I don't know what's the best solution but we can't be imposing more Sundays on the club scene."
Pat Daly has been involved in various hurling reform committees. "People are saying there are a disproportionate number of football games to hurling games, you couldn't disagree with that," he says. "It's something that needs to be addressed, yes. You would need to see the full schedule. What are the proportion of games like? And once you see that you could make an objective analysis.
"If you go back to December 2012, the HDC under Tommy Lanigan were proposing three groups of five, a Munster and Leinster five and a third five. Each would have home and away games. That was put out there, there wasn't much support for it at the time. Has the Super 8 changed the thing? Would there be support for something like that now? It would be interesting to see."
Paudie O'Neill says they respond when directed to by the GAA's central authority. He mentions the Celtic Challenge as an example of that. In that case the GAA was concerned about the lack of participation and vitality in the All-Ireland minor B and C competitions. Following a request from Central Competition Controls Committee (CCCC) the HDC looked at alternatives, eventually producing the Celtic Challenge, a 32-county under 17 competition. Between them the minor B and C were generating 13 games; the replacement competition provides 118, and this year will have 47 teams. Stronger counties enter regional teams, with weaker counties being allowed the full pick of all their clubs. It took some creative thinking and some work but they found a really good solution.
"Life is all about change," says O'Neill, "but what you want to make sure is that the change is meaningful and what is generated out of it also takes into account issues such as the club fixtures situation. The effect it will have on that. I think change will have to be measured."
As with football, there is no prospect of the Munster or Leinster finals being abandoned. The solution will have to work around these limitations. A round-robin mechanism to determine provincial champions is one method. Tommy Lanigan's is another. And there are bound to be more in the pipeline.
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