Saturday 15 December 2018

Relegation a major sore point with Leinster counties facing up to harsh reality of what lies ahead

Bolger: "We will have to wait and see how it works out at the end of the season." Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Moves to change the format of the hurling championships after one season are likely to get under way next month when the Leinster campaign drops one of its five contestants to Joe McDonagh Cup level.

That would preclude them from playing in next year's Leinster Championship, with their place going to this season's Tier 2 winners. Only two games have been played under the new round robin structure, but already there's unrest over the relegation issue, which applies automatically in Leinster only.

"We will have to wait and see how it works out at the end of the season. Obviously as Leinster Council chairman, I'll represent the views of the province in any review. If our counties have a problem with it, it will be raised. Ways of tweaking it could be looked at," said Jim Bolger.

The bottom county in the five-strong group (Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Offaly and Wexford) will drop out of the Leinster Championship next year and be replaced by the winners of this season's Joe McDonagh Cup (Antrim, Carlow, Laois, Meath, Kerry, Westmeath).

There will be no automatic relegation in Munster. The team that finishes bottom of the southern round robin series would only face a relegation threat if Kerry were to win the Joe McDonagh Cup.

In that scenario, they would face the Kingdom in a play-off to decide who fills the fifth slot in the Munster Championship for the following season.

The new format was approved by a 62-38 per cent majority at a Special Congress last September on a three-year experimental basis. However, as the reality of relegation for one of the five Leinster teams comes closer, minds are being focused in a manner that did not apply last autumn.

Offaly or Dublin are seen as the two counties under most threat, making their clash in Parnell Park on June 3 crucial to the immediate future of the game in both counties.

Kilkenny are most unlikely to have relegation worries, but Brian Cody has stood up for others in the province - and indeed their guests from the west - stating that no county in the Leinster campaign should drop out.

"There's no team being relegated in Munster so why it's supposed to happen in Leinster, I have no idea. If anyone thinks there is a lack of quality in Leinster, they're absolutely wrong," he said last weekend after Dublin came very close to beating Kilkenny.

If Antrim, who have won their first two Joe McDonagh Cup games, take the title and Galway, as expected, finish in the top three, it will leave only three Leinster counties competing in their own provincial championship next year.

"There would be some unease over that but it's too soon to make any judgements. The championships have only just started," said Bolger.

However, the fact that the format features automatic relegation from Leinster is certain to become more contentious, once the county facing the drop is known.

There was some surprise last autumn that Leinster counties weren't more vociferous in their objections to a proposal that had different relegation terms for them and their Munster counterparts.

In addition to hosting Galway, Leinster is also open to facilitating Ulster if Antrim emerge as the best in Tier 2.

Given those circumstances, Leinster would have been justified in calling for more than five counties to be included in their championship. That still remains an option, although it would probably require calling another Special Congress, something new GAA president John Horan might not be prepared to do so soon after last year.

As a Dubliner, it would be doubly difficult for him if his native county were facing relegation. Bolger said that if opposition grew within the province to losing one of the counties in this year's Leinster series, increasing from five to six the number counties involved next year might be an option.

That would mean no relegation this year, with the Joe McDonagh Cup winners being promoted.

Running off a six-team round robin series requires no more time than a five-team group so it will not have a negative impact on the club scene.

Croke Park would be very reluctant to change the format after only one season in operation but they may be unable to resist the pressure.

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