Nowhere to turn for hurling's 'have-nots'
IT WAS a day when hurling's 'haves' and 'have-nots' were held up to the light.
The senior hurlers from Cavan and Tipperary play the same sport but they are worlds apart in every other way. As one team was packing its bags for a training camp in Carton House, another was putting the boots away for at least another year and possibly until 2016, in the month of April.
The Tipperary County Board will spend a reported €20,000 on their four-day training camp. They also visited the Kildare venue last year when the ash cloud scuppered a planned trip abroad.
Tipp subsequently justified the outlay by bringing the Liam MacCarthy Cup back to Tipp for the first time since 2001.
In contrast, Cavan's hurlers once pooled the money they received from the GPA's player grant scheme to fund a training weekend in Cork.
There will be more bad news for hurling on Saturday when either Clare or Limerick will be facing up to the prospect of spending another season in Division 2, with only the winners of their final clash in Ennis returning to the top flight.
That will mean another spring of largely pointless games for the losers. Limerick won their seven games in Division 2 by an average of 10 points. Clare lost twice, but amazingly had an even bigger score difference than Limerick (+79).
Hurling's structures have been tinkered with but if anything the gap between the rich and the poor has widened.
Paudi Butler, the recently retired director of hurling, summed it up perfectly in the autumn: "Since Clare, Offaly, Limerick and Wexford won the All-Ireland (in the 90s) -- that golden era when it was so open -- the three strong counties learned their lesson and the level they have taken hurling to is almost unimaginable, isn't it?
"On one level they have made hurling very attractive but on another level they have gone on a long way."
"I'll be happy in the five years that we have turned a corner for hurling. We have more players playing and higher skill levels in the weaker counties like Tyrone and Donegal who can score 19 or 20 points in a game now.
"When the skills levels are up, children will be attracted to the game because if they can play it well they will play it."
Cavan's demise is a blow to that prophecy and a challenge to hurling's big three of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork seems a long way off.
Galway manage to upset the order every so often and seem closest to doing that at the moment. But, while the top sides play hurling at a level that makes for spellbinding encounters, the weaker sides are falling behind at a rate of knots.
A radical overhaul of hurling is in the pipeline. The GAA's Management Committee are considering proposals including the introduction of a fifth province to include Sligo, Donegal, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Cavan, Louth and Monaghan. Whether it is the answer remains to be seen.
Butler was bullish that hurling had turned a corner, pointing to Croke Park wins for the likes of Armagh, Longford and Roscommon, but warned that any radical moves will have to be carefully considered.
Specially designated hurling boards in counties have become less common as counties look to streamline their operation. It helps with costs but can often leaves the fate of hurling in the hands of a board dominated by football men.
"We have to be careful that we do the right thing now. Hurling people won't take another setback. They have their confidence now and they don't want to be tricked into something that is cost saving for football," said Butler.