Tuesday 25 June 2019

Martin Breheny: 'No team should stay in hunt for All-Ireland after three defeats'

Hurling's round-robin is here to stay but tweak needed to preserve integrity

Tony Kelly of Clare leaves the field after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4 match between Limerick and Clare at the LIT Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tony Kelly of Clare leaves the field after the Munster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4 match between Limerick and Clare at the LIT Gaelic Grounds in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Twenty-three years ago next Sunday, Ciarán Carey darted 60 metres upfield in the Gaelic Grounds like a man avoiding landmines with each zig-zagging step, before driving over a point that's guaranteed to feature on any list of super-scores from any era.

It came late on in the Munster semi-final and gave Limerick a one-point lead (1-13 to 0-15) over Clare. That was the final score and the Banner's reign as All-Ireland champions - their first for 81 years - was over.

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It was Clare's only game of the summer, their All-Ireland defence crushed first time out. No 'round robin' or qualifier second chances, no reprieves and no need for video sessions in darkened rooms to gauge what needed to be corrected before the next game. This was cold, hard and final.

It was also the last year of the straight knockout hurling championship. In 1997, beaten Leinster and Munster finalists were re-admitted at the newly-introduced quarter-final stage and, from 2002 up to last year, the qualifiers gave all counties beaten in the provincials a second chance.

It has moved a stage further now, where losing twice doesn't automatically eliminate a team. Clare, Cork, Limerick and Kilkenny are in that situation, heading into the final series of round robin games next weekend.

Contention Clare lost to Tipperary and Limerick and have a scoring difference of -30 points, but will finish third in Munster if they beat Cork and Limerick beat or draw with Tipperary.

Cork (+13 scoring difference) and Limerick (+31) could both lose and still remain in contention as they would finish on the same number of points as Clare, who have little chance of making up the scoring difference even if they win on Sunday.

In that scenario, and given that Limerick are currently 18 points ahead of Cork on scoring difference, John Kiely's men would advance to the final, despite losing twice.

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Kilkenny could lose to Wexford six days after being beaten by Galway and still stay in the All-Ireland race. That would be contingent on Galway beating Dublin. Now, maybe there's nothing wrong with a team losing twice in a five-team group and still staying in the All-Ireland race, but it might not end there.

If Clare and Tipperary win next Sunday, it's highly likely that Limerick will join Tipp in the Munster final. They could lose there too, in what would be their third defeat, and still advance to the All-Ireland as provincial runners-up.

Now that wouldn't look right. No team should remain in All-Ireland contention if they lose three of five games. That's one of the potential glitches in the round robin format, which has otherwise gone well.

Yes, there have been some big winning margins in Munster this year, but no far-reaching conclusion should be reached on the basis of a few games. After all, Tipperary won no game in Munster last year, but are on three wins from three this season.

Waterford haven't won any of their round robin games over two seasons, but at least it gave them eight outings and value for all the money that went into preparations.

Besides, the busy programme taught them a lot about the squad and what needs to be done for next season. Contrast that with 1993-'97, when they had only one championship game for five successive seasons.

Those really were daft days when some Leinster and Munster teams were eliminated from the championship two months before Galway were able to stroll directly into the All-Ireland semi-final.

The new 'home' and 'away' system has worked well, providing venues with great occasions, which they rarely enjoyed in the past. Apart from that, it boosts the economy in various towns and cities, which makes it easier for county boards to look for support from businesses.

Carlow manager Colm Bonnar wants the Leinster Championship extended to six counties, so that a team isn't caught in a yo-yo pattern between there and the Joe McDonagh Cup.

Carlow lost their four games by an average of 12 points this year and will drop down a tier. Bonnar believes they would benefit enormously from being in the top flight again next year, using the experience of this season to narrow the gap. He makes a valid point.

After all, international rugby doesn't throw Italy out of the Six Nations, despite losing by big margins every season.

Either Laois or Westmeath will, in all probability, be promoted to the Leinster Championship next year, but are likely to suffer the same fate as Carlow now.

A six-team Leinster Championship has real merit as a means of encouraging counties outside the top four. All the more so, since one of that quartet is a very large cuckoo that has flown across the Shannon and tossed a Leinster county out of its own nest.

The bigger questions are whether third-placed teams from the provinces and the Joe McDonagh Cup finalists should advance to the All-Ireland stages. There's a case for restricting it to the top two and scrapping the quarter-finals.

There will be no return to the bad old days of 'one strike and you're out' and the qualifiers appear dated too, which leaves the round robin system looking the best long-term option.

The precise structure will need careful consideration though, as it's surely only a matter of time before a team wins the All-Ireland after losing two or, worse still, three games. That would cheapen the championship.

Goalkeepers not paying the penalty

Question for football referees – any chance you might apply the rule on penalty kicks?

It states clearly that while a goalkeeper may move along his line before the kick is taken, he is not permitted to advance. If he steps forward and a goal isn’t scored, the kicker is entitled to a second attempt.

Now if ever there was a rule more breached than observed, this is it.

Virtually all goalkeepers take a step or two (and sometimes three) forward to narrow the angle, yet re-takes are rarely ordered. Goalkeepers know that and have become quite brazen about it.

Now it should be one of the easiest rules to apply. Play has stopped, the referee and both of his umpires can watch the goalkeeper closely, so why are they not ordering more re-takes?

If they did, the problem would be solved very quickly as ’keepers realised that they simply couldn’t get away with breaking the rule so blatantly.

As it is, there’s every encouragement  for them to ignore it. Which they do.

Wexford should get on Ryan line

Jason Ryan’s phone number is, no doubt, still on Wexford’s books after his successful spell there, which included steering them to an All-Ireland semi-final in 2008, where they lost to eventual winners, Tyrone. It seems like an opportune time to give him another call.

Without a win in the Leinster Championship since 2014 and with only two wins in the  qualifiers in the same period, their latest league ranking is 29 of 32.

Disappointing times for a county that reached the  Division 1 final in 2005 and were regulars in the Leinster semi-final for several years, eventually reaching the final in 2008 where they lost to Dublin before beating Down in a round 4 qualifier and Ulster champions Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

There are rumblings of discontent in Wexford football that too much focus is  directed towards the hurlers’ bid to land a big prize.

 I don’t know whether Ryan, who managed Kildare for two years, would be interested in returning to management but Wexford might be wise to ask him.

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