The 2009 All-Ireland hurling championship starts this weekend, and the marquee game is unquestionably the one in Thurles between Tipperary and Cork. The more interesting one though for those of us who obsess about how the GAA is run is in Portlaoise between Laois and Galway. Taking place at the time of writing, you don’t need to be Nostradamus – or even someone could really predict the future – to see this one is going to end badly for my wee nephew’s county. Still, the prospect of seeing Galway in the mainstream of the championship as opposed to standing outside demanding the mainstream divert itself into their path is a positive development.
This isn’t a cut at the Leinster championship. It is self-evident that the Leinster title lacks the allure of its Munser counterpart, but this isn’t because of an inherent lack of competitiveness – indeed, if lack of competition were a reason to denigrate a tournament, we wouldn’t be bothering with the Liam McCarthy Cup itself. It’s that for those of us willing to defend the centrality of the provincial championships in the All-Ireland series, the absence of Antrim and Galway was a glaring anomaly that needed to be addressed.
I’m unconvinced that any open draw system will make the hurling championship ‘work’. People talk of Champions League-style group stages, but we had that a few years ago in the qualifiers and it was not a success. Waterford whipped the mid-ranking teams then had their fate decided by their efforts against Clare (an away defeat) and Galway (a home win). However devalued the provincial championships might have become by the back door, and there is no point in pretending that there has been no devaluation, there is still a frission of tension generated by competing for trophies with a century-old pedigree. It would be hard to retain any of that in a round-robin format, and the amount of dead rubbers will reach Ireland-Davis-Cup-match proportions.
Of course, that’s not to say the provincial championships are inviolate. If they are so damaged that they can’t be fixed, it would be time to replace them. Even the Railway Cups had to put out of their misery. Hopefully the fix getting its first run today will prove sufficiently robust to keep these venerable old competitions on the road.