Martin Breheny: West-East cold war could derail hurling championship structure
It started as a spat over venues but has since escalated into an issue that threatens the stability of the All-Ireland SHC format as Galway raise the stakes in what they regard as a battle against inequality.
The decision by Leinster counties not to enter into a home-and-away arrangement with Galway for senior championship games, combined with a refusal to allow the Tribesmen's underage teams compete in the eastern campaign, will become a national issue in the New Year.
Galway forwarded a Congress motion to Croke Park this week, proposing that all their hurling teams compete "in a single provincial structure."
Leinster and Munster are the only two viable provincial hurling championships so if the motion is passed, the issue of whether Galway play in the east or the south moves on to the Croke Park agenda.
And since there is a stand-off between Galway and Leinster, Munster's approach would become important.
Galway CEO John Hynes said that the motion, passed on a unanimous vote of 253 delegates at the county convention on Monday, was designed to have all their teams playing in provincial championships. "We can't have that as things stand as Leinster do not accommodate our U-21s and minors. We believe Galway's interests would be best served by having all our teams playing in provincial competitions," he said.
Clearly, the Galway tactic is to broaden the debate so that it becomes a matter for all counties at Congress. Munster counties would usually have no more than a passing interest in the Galway-Leinster relationship but it will become as issue for them if the Galway motion is passed.
With Leinster refusing to accommodate Galway's underage teams, Munster would be faced with a dilemma - do we welcome the westerners or apply a veto?
If the latter were the case, then Galway would, effectively, be back where they were prior to the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers when they qualified directly for the quarter-finals. Obviously, that's not an option in the very different environment that applies nowadays.
It's most unlikely that Munster would have any interest in hosting Galway as their championships are extremely competitive at present. Leinster is a more natural fit for Galway but only if the current problems can be sorted out.
Hynes said that Galway would be happy to see GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail and director-general Páraic Duffy become involved in the Galway-Leinster impasse.
"It's not just a Galway-Leinster matter anymore - it's a national issue. We would like to have our underage teams in Leinster, but they don't want that. That's why our motion mentions a single provincial structure. It doesn't necessarily mean we have to play in Leinster but we want to be in some provincial structure," he said.
Leinster chairman John Horan has already proposed a new system for the minor championships whereby Galway, the Ulster champions and the runners-up in Leinster and Munster would play off in a 'round-robin', with the top two joining the Munster and Leinster champions in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Galway's annoyance over the continued failure of Leinster counties to cross the Shannon started the current 'cold war', since the original concept envisaged them being equal partners in an arrangement that began in 2009.
Ironically, it was around then that the Leinster Council began to encourage counties to enter 'home-and-away' arrangements for quarter-finals. However, it has not extended to Galway, who have played all 23 Leinster games east of the Shannon.
It will be interesting to see if Galway's motion actually makes it on the Congress agenda in February or if some compromise is found in the meantime. If it were passed, it would effectively require Leinster or Munster to take in all of Galway's teams. Question is - who would decide where they went? And what would be the reaction of Leinster or Munster if they were ordered to facilitate the western 'cuckoos'?
It's likely that ó Fearghail and Duffy will lead a diplomatic initiative, aimed at ensuring Galway seniors continue in Leinster while also finding a better way of accommodating their underage teams. However, that will not be easy since most Leinster counties are entrenched in their determination not to go west for senior games or entertain Galway minors or U-21s.
Meanwhile, Galway are equally determined that the current position does not continue.