Martin Breheny: 'Luck of the draw ensures inequality will be rampant in next year's hurling league'
Next season's restructured Allianz Hurling League will be seriously lopsided, with no fewer than five of the six leading favourites for this year's All-Ireland title on the same side, while only one - Cork or Kilkenny - will be in the other group.
The two six-strong groups are based on where counties finished in Divisions 1A and 1B this season. In theory, that should deliver fairly balanced groups but it hasn't done so.
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Bizarrely, it has also led to a situation where the winners of next Sunday's Kilkenny v Cork 1A play-off will be in the tougher group. Effectively, there's a bigger prize for losing a game which, under the system that applied in recent years, would have been a relegation play-off.
The make-up of Division 1 in 2020 will be as follows:
GROUP A: Limerick (1st 1A), Tipperary (4th 1A), Cork or Kilkenny (5th or 6th 1A), Waterford (2nd 1B), Galway (3rd 1B), Westmeath (Div 2A champions).
GROUP B: Wexford (2nd 1A), Clare (3rd 1A), Cork or Kilkenny (5th or 6th 1A), Dublin (1st 1A), Laois (4th 1A), Carlow (1B relegation play-off winners).
Current betting for this year's All-Ireland title illustrates the sharp difference between the two groups.
Galway 11/4; Limerick 4/1; Tipperary 5/1; Cork 11/2; Kilkenny 6/1; Clare 15/2; Waterford 12/1; Wexford 22/1; Dublin 33/1; Carlow 1000/1; Laois and Westmeath are in Tier 2 (Joe McDonagh Cup).
It means that the All-Ireland winners and two beaten finalists from the last three years will be in Group A. And if Kilkenny beat Cork, the third beaten finalist will also play there.
The groups were pre-ordained in terms of finishing placings in 1A and 1B, with counties slotting in after the final round last weekend, except for Cork and Kilkenny.
Feargal McGill, head of games administration, said that placings were based on normal arrangements designed to achieve equality in this type of situation (eg, first and fourth in one group, second and third in the other). "Some system had to be used to combine teams from 1A and 1B for next year and the one we used is fair. Obviously, it's only after 1A and 1B are completed that the make-up of the actual groups emerge," he said.
Unfortunately, the placings in 1A and 1B have delivered unintended consequences, with one group appearing to be much stronger than the other.
It's a bad start for the new system, which came about after complaints from some counties over the differences in 1A and 1B. The six counties in 1A had tough games all the way, while the top teams in 1B have a more leisurely path to the quarter-finals.
There has been a wide gap on the 1B table between the top and bottom three for several years and, in another inconsistency, the top four from both groups qualified for the quarter-finals.
It was decided last year to revert to a past format where the top 12 were divided into two groups of six, supposedly of equal standing. It was always going to lead to one anomaly as Laois, Carlow and Westmeath, who are behind the other nine, had to be divided two-one between the groups.
Laois and Carlow went into 1B, effectively making it weaker from the start. And, as luck would have it, they will be joined by three counties who are not in the top six in the All-Ireland odds, plus Cork or Kilkenny.
It's an unfortunate development, which risks undermining the restructure in its very first season. Despite that, the imbalance will almost certainly remain for as long as that format is retained as the only change to the groups at the end of next season will involve promotion and relegation.
The bottom team in Group A (most likely Westmeath) will play the bottom side in Group 2 (mostly likely Carlow or Laois), with the losers relegated and replaced by the 2A champions.
Three teams, as opposed to four under the current format, from either group will qualify for the knockout stages. The winners of either group will qualify for the semi-finals, with second and third playing across each other to provide the other two semi-finalists.