Martin Breheny: 'Hurling's golden age not shining for everyone'
Allowing only 10 teams to compete in provincial championships restricts movement between top two tiers and is frustrating for several counties
Twenty-five years ago this month, Nickey Brennan enlivened a mundane GAA Congress with his famous "hurling is dying on its feet" speech.
Snoozing delegates were jolted upright as the then Kilkenny chairman called for action "before it is too late". His native Kilkenny were perched on the summit, having won the 1992 and 1993 All-Ireland titles, but Brennan believed that hurling's challenges extended from top to bottom.
"The overall state of hurling is being eroded and serious action is needed," he said. Brennan, who went on to become GAA president in 2006, also spoke of how "hurling has fallen well behind football in terms of support and appeal".
His stark comments were designed to promote debate about where hurling was headed at a time when football was oozing freshness after Donegal and Derry won All-Irelands for the first time.
A quarter of a century on, the reverse is the case. Football, complete with sterile tactics, a narrow base of potential All-Ireland winners and an outdated championship format, has identity challenges.
Meanwhile, top-end hurling is in boom territory. A tiered format, ultra-competitive Munster and Leinster championships, and huge public interest make it another golden age.
The five traditionally strong Munster counties have never been as evenly matched and while Kerry aren't quite up to that standard, they were a close second behind Westmeath in the race for promotion to Division 1 this year and will be strong contenders in the Joe McDonagh Cup.
It's pure guesswork which three Munster counties will reach the All-Ireland stages. Limerick, Cork and Tipperary lead the betting, but who can dismiss Clare and Waterford?
Clare reached the Munster final and All-Ireland semi-finals last year and have good reason to be confident about this season too. Waterford are outsiders of the five, but if that's based on last year it's a seriously flawed judgment.
Apart from being ravaged by injuries, they had no home games. This year, Clare and Limerick have to go to Walsh Park.
Leinster is different in that it's essentially a four-way race for three qualification places. Yes, Carlow drew with Galway in the Allianz League but can you see them coming close to repeating that in Pearse Stadium on May 12?
And where will they pick up points against Kilkenny, Dublin and Wexford?
That's not to say they shouldn't be in the Leinster championship.
It's their province and they fulfilled the criteria by winning the Joe McDonagh Cup, so good luck to them in the step up now.
"We have savage belief in the group, so we'll be disappointed if we're not competitive," said Carlow's Marty Kavanagh this week.
He provides a perfect example of why the likes of Carlow should be in a provincial championship, rather than in lower-tier competition. He scored 0-49 (placed balls and play) in the league, a campaign which ended successfully when Carlow retained their Division 1 status at Offaly's expense.
Now, this is where it's appropriate to press the pause button and reflect if the 'golden age' is being properly managed.
Neither Offaly nor Laois are eligible for this year's provincial championships, having been squeezed out by a system which requires Leinster to have the same number of counties (five) as Munster.
There's a distinct difference, of course, since Leinster host the large Galway 'cuckoo', which tosses smaller chicks out of the nest.
Despite that, Carlow are excited about the prospect of playing four Leinster games this year. They are at home to Kilkenny and Dublin in Netwatch Cullen Park. And, no doubt, a sizeable contingent of supporters will travel to Galway next month and to Wexford in early June.
Kavanagh spoke of how he grew up attending Kilkenny, rather than Carlow, games.
"At the time Kilkenny were going so well and there were more Carlow lads going to Kilkenny matches - that's the way it was. Now Brian Cody and these (Kilkenny players) are coming to town (Carlow)," he said.
Of course, it's for one season only as Carlow will almost certainly drop down to Joe McDonagh Cup level next year, with no certainty of a return to the top tier in 2021.
And even if they do come back, will they drop straight back down again?
The same applies to Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and Antrim if any of them win the Joe McDonagh Cup. If Kerry win, there's a second lock in place, designed to keep them out of the top tier.
They would have to beat the bottom team in Munster to join the southern circuit, something that's most unlikely.
On that basis, Kerry will never be in the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier, while counties of similar standard in Leinster, plus Antrim, can aspire to it.
That's a plus for Leinster counties, but with so many of them (plus Antrim) in the Joe McDonagh Cup and only one promotion place, movement will be slow and, in some cases, won't happen at all.
Not being able to compete in their own provincial championship is a serious setback for counties.
The system holds that Carlow are good enough for Leinster this year, but not Offaly or Laois who, on the basis of recent results, are on a par with Colm Bonnar's men.
Carlow won one and lost one league game with Offaly this year, while they drew with Laois.
While restricting the Leinster championship to five counties makes it all neat and tidy, there's a fairness issue and, equally importantly, the question of whether it's good for counties outside the top three, plus Galway.
If economic history has taught us anything, it's that boom times must be carefully managed in order to avoid bust. Hurling's top end has never been more vibrant, but the pathway for the likes of Offaly, Carlow, Laois, Westmeath, Antrim and Kerry is too narrow and not in anyone's longer-term interests.