Wednesday 22 November 2017

Hurling dying on its feet as apathy takes firm hold


IT'S rare that attendances at domestic soccer matches surpass top-flight hurling or Gaelic football league fixtures, but that's what happened last weekend.

On Friday night, 5,263 people made their way to Tallaght Stadium for the Airtricity League game between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk. That figure exceeded the turnout at the Tipperary-Waterford floodlit hurling game in Semple Stadium 24 hours later where only 4,947 turned up to see the All-Ireland and Munster champions clash.

Last Saturday's low turnout, allied to other poor shows nationwide, raises serious questions about the quality of the hurling leagues thus far.

"It's like everyone is waiting for Kilkenny and Tipperary to meet in summer so let's just get the league out of the way," says hurling analyst and All-Ireland winner Daithi Regan.

"Excuse Dublin from that -- they're showing great form. But Tipp are only coming down from last year and Kilkenny are still picking themselves off the ropes. Galway are inconsistent and most other counties have regressed. There's not much to enthuse about."

Floodlit fixtures have been very poorly attended. While they seem to work in Dublin, rural heartlands have not embraced the concept.

"The first 35 minutes of the Tipp-Kilkenny game was brilliant because both teams were going for it," Regan says. "But under lights you needed a full house to drive them on. While there were 9,000 present the atmosphere just dipped in the second half and it definitely affected the teams.

"Floodlit hurling has to be given time but it's not working yet, the attendances tell you that. Last year's Munster final replay was cruel -- 20,000 people for an occasion of such magnitude that it should always be held on a summer's Sunday. Desperate."

Indeed, that surreal rematch prompted outgoing Munster GAA chairman Jim Forbes to ask the council never again to hold a final replay on a Saturday evening. Forbes said they should take full control of fixture-making instead of being dictated to by TV requirements.

However, it's not just floodlights that are the problem. Hurling is finding it harder to survive in pockets where Gaelic football is king.

The GAA took in just €72 in gate receipts for their fourth-tier Lory Meagher Cup last year and lost €100,000 on that competition alone. They lost €140,000 from the Christy Ring Cup and a further €127,000 on the Nicky Rackard Cup.

"I compliment the GAA for keeping going with these competitions but several counties who play in these championships have boards with no interest in hurling," Regan adds. "Years back, I raised concerns about the state of Donegal hurling but was told by a former official that football was the only game up there."

This year's fare won't prompt too many to focus on the small ball. There were just over 3,000 in Nowlan Park for the meeting of Kilkenny and Wexford and just under that amount at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. With the most promising fixtures on Setanta each weekend, more people are staying put to tune in.

The GAA must now examine if the hurling season starts too early, or if ticket prices can be reduced further. And they need to tell managers to stop playing the league down. They're currently tweaking the competition again -- next season's league will include an extra round, according to president Christy Cooney.

"We would hope to have semi-finals in hurling and football," he said. "We haven't gone beyond that yet. We haven't any massive suggestions about a 14-team Division 1 and changes in the structure of the divisions."

But Regan says it's clear that the Association is fast running out of ideas.

"Limerick will want to get out of Division 2 and Dublin need to put down another marker. That apart, you'll have the same four teams in championship contention come August. Like, Offaly people won't even travel to Nenagh today because they fear a beating.

"I'm not saying we'll have a bad championship. But we're having a bad league and new teams can't really challenge because county boards won't waste money by promoting hurling. The amount of negativity I hear about Dublin hurling from Dublin people is incredible. They say too much money is being invested in hurling and it's affecting football badly. They should be ashamed.

"Finally, average club hurlers are going around charging teams money and are not even coaching the core principles of the game. I was coaching a lad the other night and he had never even heard of ground hurling. I'd like to be more positive but I can't."

It could be a vintage season yet, but unless Dublin make the final it may already be too late for the 2011 league.

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