Monday 11 December 2017

Time for hurling to embrace a Champions League format?

The Great Debate

Everyone wants to get their hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup but does the hurling championship's format need to be changed? Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Everyone wants to get their hands on the Liam MacCarthy Cup but does the hurling championship's format need to be changed? Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Martin Breheny & Liam Kelly

No Says Martin Breheny - Champions League: now there's a grand title for what used to be termed 'round robin.' Quite apart from the UEFA Champions League competition title in soccer being a misnomer, since it includes more than champions, there's the absurdity of trying to apply it to hurling.

In soccer, teams that finish as low as fourth in their domestic leagues compete; in hurling all counties (15 this year) that are eligible for inclusion in the Liam MacCarthy Cup would be involved so dubbing them all 'champions' is ridiculous.

Let's call it as it is, rather than spouting grandiose nonsense. If the Leinster and Munster championships were scrapped in favour of dividing the counties into groups, it becomes a mini-league to decide who reaches the All-Ireland quarter and/or semi-finals.

It's easy to present a trendy scenario where Tipperary ride into Nowlan Park to take on Kilkenny and Cork arrive in Thurles to tussle with Tipperary, followed the following week by epic tussles between Clare and Galway, Limerick and Dublin, all as part of a league involving groups of three or four.

However, there will be several less attractive games too. And, most damaging of all, there will be meaningless games because that's what happens in a league format. Cast your mind back to this year's round robin in the Leinster championship, involving Antrim, Carlow, Laois, London and Westmeath.

Laois and Antrim had clinched the two quarter-final places before meeting each other in the last round so, in effect, the game was meaningless.

It's even more probable that would happen if all the counties competing in the championship were in a 'round robin' structure since, inevitably, different standards would apply in various groups.

Apart from that, there's the issue of public appeal. It's easy sell a big Munster or Leinster championship game, much less so to engage the public with an advertisement for next Sunday's 'Section A, Round 2' clash.

Over 100 years of tradition and branding have gone into the Munster and Leinster championships, so to discard them in favour of a bland replacement would be pure madness. Winning a provincial title still matters, especially to counties who have been off the glory trail for some years.

If you doubt that, check back on the scenes from the Gaelic Grounds last year when Limerick won the Munster title for the first time since 1996. And while the excitement wasn't quite as high when Dublin made the Leinster breakthrough for the first time in 52 years last year, it was still a massive occasion.

One suspects that Limerick's or Dublin's delight at topping a 'round robin' group wouldn't be quite as pronounced. As for the public, they enjoy League hurling in spring but don't want it woven into the championship.

The current system has its flaws but remains far more attractive – not to mention lucrative - than a 'round robin' model, wearing cheap 'Champions League' clothes.

Yes says Liam Kelly

LIMERICK hurler David Breen is relieved that his team has only two weeks to wait before their All-Ireland hurling semi-final against Kilkenny.

Last year the Treaty men had six weeks before facing Clare who came through the qualifiers to reach the last four of the MacCarthy Cup, and that's just too long.

In the aftermath of last Sunday's win over Wexford, Breen said: "You get over the disappointment of losing when you've frequent matches and you're not waiting around five or six weeks to play again.

"You can play all the in-house matches you like, but nothing beats championship matches out there."

By contrast, Wexford would probably love to have had a break before the All-Ireland quarter-finals but they were caught up in the qualifier grind of week after week, game after game, as were Clare last year.

It's a very disjointed system. Dublin, by winning Leinster in 2013, had an 11-week wait this year for their provincial championship opener away to Wexford.

Something needs to change. The SHC is a very small competition in terms of numbers. It's time to look at giving players more matches in the peak summer period, and one way to do that is to operate a Champions League format.

The basic idea is to weed out the 'B' teams as was done via the Leinster round robin series this year. Then go into the championship with two groups of six. Five matches each. Play those off during May, June, and July.

The top two in each group qualify for the semi-finals in August with the All-Ireland final in September.

Munster and Leinster championships? Play them in the spring on the same knockout basis, and do away with the League.

The reality is that the Leinster Championship proper consists of six games, and Munster only four, barring replays in each province. They can still yield revenue because they will continue as they do now.

Win, and carry on; lose, and you have to wait for the All-Ireland Championship, but at least you know you're getting a run of matches.

It's way past time to give hurlers a consistent and meaningful schedule of matches in the summer.

Careers are being shortened by the demands made on the modern player, with extended periods between games for some teams, and a helter-skelter schedule for others.

This system would put an end to qualifiers, which wouldn't be a bad thing.

Home and away? Let Year One's pattern be dictated by the previous year's standings to give the higher-placed teams three home and two away games. Reverse that order for the following year.

This idea may not radically alter the ultimate destination of the Liam MacCarthy Cup, but it would make the journey more meaningful and consistent for the managers, players, and supporters.

Irish Independent

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