Wednesday 13 December 2017

Angry exchanges as 'Gang of Eight' lose out in bid to hijack new league format

ANGER over how eight top hurling counties attempted to overturn a decision -- taken less than two months ago -- led to feisty exchanges at Tuesday's Central Council meeting, while it has also emerged that the fear of a challenge to the Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) played a major role in the addition of semi-finals to the new format.

The 'Gang of Eight' -- comprised of Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford -- sought the scrapping of the six-team Division 1A and Division 1B format, which had been voted in by Central Council in August, in favour of a return to the system featuring eight teams in both Division 1 and Division 2 that applied for the past few seasons.

However, the 'Gang of Eight' were rebuffed by other counties, who were also critical of them for holding what were termed "caucus meetings". This referred to various get-togethers in recent weeks where strategy was discussed.

Limerick were challenged over a report that they were considering withdrawing from next year's league if, having won promotion to Division 1 this year, they weren't in the top flight for 2012. One delegate claimed that Limerick could be accused of bringing the GAA into disrepute.

"The eight counties involved were looking after their own interests. Some of them voted for the change in August but changed their tune since," said one Central Council delegate.

"The manner the eight went about getting their own way did not go down well with a lot of counties, who regarded it as elitist.

"Nor were they best pleased with having to come to a meeting in Croke Park on a Tuesday night. They had thought they'd settled on the league format in August, only to find it challenged by the so-called superpowers."

There was little support for the 'Gang of Eight', but changes were still made to the format which was accepted in August because of a fear that it could be challenged under rule and brought before the DRA.

The GAA had legal advice that unless they added semi-finals to Division 1 of the NHL, a case might have been sustainable if taken to the DRA. That arose from a Central Council decision last November to make provision for the return of semi-finals to both the hurling and football leagues (straight finals between the top two were played for the last few years).

Central Council voted in August to restore semi-finals to Division 1 of the NFL but opted for a straight final in hurling. It's understood that the 'Gang of Eight' were considering challenging the latter before the DRA if their proposal to restore the format which applied for the last few years was not accepted.

As a compromise, semi-finals will now also apply in hurling (Division 1 only), featuring the top team in 1A against the winners of 1B, while second and third in 1A also meet. That will necessitate the 1B final (winners to be promoted to 1A) playing off before the Division 1 semi-finals.

The unseemly row is one of the most divisive in hurling for a long time and arose following a review of the NHL. Three proposals were put to Congress in August, with two proposing a 12-county Division 1 (six each in 1A and 1B). One proposal included quarter-finals/semi-finals while the other, which was accepted, proposed straight finals.

However, the six Division 1A counties (Cork, Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford) plus Limerick and Wexford (1B) subsequently got together to oppose the decision, while calling for a return to the eight-team Divisions 1 and 2 which had applied for a few years.

Wexford were disappointed that, having held onto top-flight status this year, they would be in Division 1B under the new system, while Limerick argued that it was unfair to ask them to remain in the lower grouping after they won the Division 2 title.

The other six complained that the new system cut their guaranteed quota of games from seven to five, contending that it was bad for hurling from a competitive, promotional and financial viewpoint.

However, the 'Gang of Eight' -- not all of whom originally voted against the six-team format -- angered many other counties over their failure to raise their concerns in advance of the August meeting and their subsequent attempt to change a democratic decision.

Reports that they were considering taking a DRA case further alienated them. However, the eventual outcome is something of a compromise.

The new system will mean that one team in Division 1A (fourth-placed) will have only five games but the rest are guaranteed a minimum of six, while two may have seven outings.

The top three counties will be involved in the knockout race for the final, with the bottom two battling it out to decide who drops down into Division 1B.

It remains to be seen how long the new format remains in place but, on the evidence of the last 15 years, the prospects of it surviving for more than two seasons are slim.

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