League format set for stay of execution
Central Council ready to retain 2013 NHL structure as five options put forward for vote
As confusion increases over the format for next year's Allianz Hurling League, there's a growing possibility that Saturday's Central Council meeting will opt to retain the existing structure and order a complete re-evaluation of the competition.
At least five options are in the mix, with none of them understood to be coming anywhere close to gaining universal approval.
Despite the huge uncertainty, a decision has to be reached on Saturday so that Croke Park's fixture makers can compile the 2014 schedule.
It would usually have been completed long before now but has been delayed by the rows over the NHL format.
The main options are as follows:
Option A: Split Division 1 into two groups of six, based on their finishing positions this year. Each group would be made of up of two counties that finished first to fourth (Kilkenny, Tipperary, Galway, Waterford); two from fifth-eighth (Clare, Cork, Dublin, Limerick) and two from ninth-12th (Offaly, Wexford, Antrim, Laois).
Each county would play the other in the group (five games), followed by two outings against counties of equal standard (two games in top four, two from next four, two from bottom four). The top two in each group would qualify for the semi-finals.
Advantages: Every county is guaranteed seven games, as is the case in football. It gives weaker counties a chance to test themselves against stronger opposition while also ensuring that they play each other in the final two games. Similarly, stronger counties would be matched against each other in the final two games.
Disadvantages: The final table could end up being distorted by the last two games involving teams of supposedly equal standard. Also, it's not a straight-forward format, which undermines the basic principle of a league.
Option B: Same as A, except Carlow and Westmeath join either group, which would then feature seven counties.
Advantages: It gives Carlow and Westmeath a chance to play at elite level, which they are anxious to do. They are allowed to compete in the All-Ireland championship, so why should the same not apply in the league?
Disadvantages: Seven in a group means one county is left idle in every round, which adds to the duration of the league. According to the rules, the NHL (Division 1) must be completed over nine weekends. Would that be possible if Carlow and Westmeath were added to the two groups?
Option C: Increase Division 1A from six to eight counties (Cork and Limerick benefit as they were due to be in 1B under this year's system) and retain six counties in 1B. This was the proposal which sparked a major controversy some weeks ago as Wexford and Offaly led the resistance to what they perceived as a downgrading of their status.
Advantages: It provides more games at the highest level, leading to greater interest and additional gate revenue.
Disadvantages: It weakens 1B, leaving the counties in that group less prepared for the championship than those in 1A.
Option D: Retain 1A and 1B in the format which applied for the last few seasons, except for adding quarter-finals, featuring the top four in each group. This was the formula agreed on by Central Council last December, only to come under pressure before it was even applied.
Advantages: It provides more games after the divisional rounds. It gives four, rather than one, 1B teams a chance to win the title outright. At the very least, it provides them with one extra game against 1A opposition.
Disadvantages: It's unfair to the two teams at the bottom of 1A that they would be eliminated from the league, while the county as low as fourth in 1B qualifies for the quarter-finals. Effectively, 1A and 1B are being treated the same, despite the difference in standards.
Option E: Retain the existing format for 2014 and begin a process to devise a brand new formula which would be discussed later in the year.
Advantages: It avoids the risk of making the wrong decision on Saturday because of the urgent need to settle on a format for 2014. If a bad formula is agreed on in haste, a rethink will be necessary anyway, so why not retain the status quo for one more season while a new structure is worked on?
Disadvantages: The current system is flawed, yet would apply again next season.