Sport Hurling

Wednesday 21 February 2018

When a change is not quite as good as a rest

Cork's Luke O'Farrell is pursued by Kilkenny trio Jackie Tyrrell (4), Richie Doyle (7), and Brian Hogan (6) during the National Hurling League final last May
Cork's Luke O'Farrell is pursued by Kilkenny trio Jackie Tyrrell (4), Richie Doyle (7), and Brian Hogan (6) during the National Hurling League final last May
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IN what has to be the most frequent churning of fixture structures in sport, the GAA's two main hurling competitions are heading for their 17th change since 1997.

Central Council voted last Saturday to alter the Allianz League format for the ninth time since 1997 and will deliberate in January on a proposed eighth adjustment in the same period to the All-Ireland championship.

Some change is certain in the top competition, with the main proposals involving a reduction in the number of counties competing for the Liam MacCarthy Cup and a streamlining of the Leinster championship to feature a preliminary section among the weaker counties with one qualifying to join Kilkenny, Galway, Dublin, Offaly and Wexford in the last six.

The bewilderingly high attrition rate on the systems used for the two principal inter-county competitions has inevitably led to confusion among players and public alike. Just as they are growing accustomed to one format, it's changed and very often will come under pressure even before it's seen through for one season, leading to calls for a rethink.

Bizarrely, a Congress decision in April 2007 to cut the round robin All-Ireland qualifier groups from two to one was never implemented, having been voted out at Special Congress six months later in favour of straight knock-out qualifiers.

Last year, Central Council voted in August to have a straight final in Division 1 between the counties who finished top of 1A and 1B but rescinded the decision two months later and added semi-finals to the programme. That applied this year and will be retained in 2013 but already it has been decided to change again for 2014 when eight counties (four each from 1A and 1B) will qualify for quarter-finals.

It means that four of six counties in either group will have a chance of winning the Division 1 title outright which is an unusually high qualification rate in a competition featuring only 12 entrants.

The bottom two in 1A and 1B will enter a play-off to decide who drops to 1B.

Since the All-Ireland championships and Division 1 NHL almost never cater for more than 16 counties, it's quite remarkable that there have been so many changes to the systems over the years.

Adjustments to the league have been quite common for decades but the first major shake-up of the championship didn't arrive until 1997 when beaten Leinster and Munster finalists were allowed re-enter the race for the Liam MacCarthy Cup while Galway and the Ulster champions lost their automatic right to qualify for the All-Ireland semi-finals.

That lasted until 2002 when all teams beaten in the Leinster and Munster championships returned to the All-Ireland scene.

It survived for three seasons and since then there have been several more adjustments, with another to come in 2014.

The Munster championship has remained unchanged over the years but its Leinster counterpart adopted Galway and Antrim in 2009 and will also host London next year in what will be 10-county event. Even then, there's a quirk as Leinster have retained the regulation which allows the defending champions (Galway in 2013) automatic entry to the semi-final. All-Ireland champions Kilkenny will enter at the quarter-final stage where they will play Offaly in Tullamore on June 9.

There have been repeated assurances over the years that the formats for the All-Ireland championship and National League (Division 1) would be allowed to settle in but it has never happened, largely because counties begin agitating for change very early in a new cycle.

However, 17 changes since 1997 is incredibly high and given the doubts that have already arisen over the league format to be introduced in 2014, there's every chance that there's more on the way.

Football has been much more settled, especially in the championship where the only major change was the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2001.

Irish Independent

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