Championship really matters

The thorny subject of the format of the various inter-county All-Ireland championships is one I tend to avoid discussing online. This is because whenever the subject comes up on message boards it is because someone has posted a grandly convoluted plan, a plan they have clearly spent a lot of time thinking about. It isn’t long before it gets ridiculed by a troll and the whole thing degenerates into a slagging match. So it was ironic that it was on Twitter, that Brooklyn Bridge of trolldom, that I engaged in a civil discussion of the pros and cons of the various formats (you can see some of the thoughts that were spawned by the above tweet here). Perversely the truncated nature of Twitter communication allowed for quick points and counterpoints, and certainly got me thinking about where the GAA needs to go with the hurling championships. This post is an attempt to establish broad principles about what is achievable and what we might be all able to agree on. Yep, wish me luck with that.

  • There is no format that can make hurling ‘work’.

This has got to be the guiding principle for any discussion of the championship. Hurling has problems that will not be resolved by tinkering with the format of the All-Irelands.  There’s no denying that it’s a farce how Antrim are sent out year after year to get massacred by the Munster or Leinster Under-21 champions, but the scale of the defeats show that Antrim simply aren’t up to it and there’s nowhere they can be introduced to the mix that will allow them to compete. Meanwhile at Senior level, even if Kilkenny were to come back down to the level of the rest of us there would still only be at best a half-dozen teams capable of winning the All-Ireland, something that has been true since since the 1910’s when eight different counties won the All-Ireland. Embrace this reality and the frustration with the hurling championship’s foibles is significantly reduced.

  • No going back to the old ways.

No, nay, never. People who hanker back to the good old days of robust winner-takes-all knockout hurling are over-romanticising this past. While researching the results archive it struck me how paltry some of the crowds were. This could be explained away before the 1960’s by the difficulty of travel but by the 70’s the private motor car had become ubiquitous yet even matches between Waterford and Clare where both sides had a reasonable hope for success would do very well to get crowds over 20,000. The idea that the nation was routinely captivated by tension-soaked clashes between titans is nonsense, fuelled by a handful of memorable rivalries such as Cork and Tipperary in the late 80’s. For the most part, plenty of matches were teams going through the motions in a manner not too different from today’s lop-sided encounters or supposedly bloodless provincial matches. At least now teams can train in the knowledge that they’ll get more than one match and bloggers have more to write about. Uh-oh, said the quiet bit loud and the loud bit quiet . . .

  • Leave the Under-21 championship as it is.

This may seem contradictory to the two points above which referred to the travails of the Antrim Under-21s and the frustration of training in anticipation of only one match. The Antrim problem is a straightforward one – they shouldn’t be competing. The All-Ireland used to even shorter back in the day because Antrim rarely ventured forth from Ulster to represent the provinces. It has only been since the Centenary year that the Glensmen have been a regular feature of the Senior championship. If they’re forced to field a team, then they shouldn’t be. If they’re not being forced, then it’s not worth getting worked up over. It’s not as if the Under-21 championship is the alpha and the omega of inter-county hurling. Under-21 players have opportunities either side of the age bracket to don the county jersey, and I think it’s great to have a competition that still has a winner-takes-all mentality. Having derided it in the previous point, now I’m going to row back and say something spectacular did happen on occasion. The last two Munster finals have been thrillers, and both have ended in last minute defeats for the kingpins in Cork and Tipperary. Alas, no wins for us, but you only had to see the celebrations in the Gaelic Grounds and Cusack Park to see what each win meant to Limerick and Clare respectively. And it’s not just in Munster that that can be said. We had Kilkenny being beaten by Wexford last year and Laois reaching the Leinster final this year at Dublin’s expense. Keeping the Under-21 championship is a respectful nod to the past – without having to relive its horrors.

  • Club championships should proceed regardless of where the inter-county season may be.

This is probably the most telling thing I took from the Twitter discussion. The single biggest problem the GAA faces is emigration and rural depopulation, but trailing in a close second is the inability to provide club players with regular games. Postponing games because a player might be with the county panel might have made sense in a time when even the most intense championship run would run to a handful of games spread across several months and the GAA had a monopoly on the affections of the masses. But now you could be playing three or four games in July and August leaving those months barren for the club players  which just so happen to be the months when hurling is at its most playable, and there are now sports competing with the interests of players. It’s a shambles, one made worse by how easily resolved it is. Schedule the matches and play them whoever might not be available. Professional sports manage it just fine. Leicester Tigers do not get to skip English Premiership matches even if they have a half-dozen players away on international duty, and this is a sport with genuinely specialist positions where the loss of a tighthead prop could be fatal to the team’s chances. The GAA knows this is a problem. The decision a number of years back to refuse to allow nominated teams to compete in the All-Ireland club championships reflected a frustration at counties allowing their championship to drag on into November and December when the pitches are like glue pots. This was only a mild punishment though, and even then there is still the possibility of dispensations for offenders. There has to be an edict from on high. Compile your fixtures at the start of the year and no postponements for any inter-county frippery, at the risk of being suspended from the All-Ireland the following year. That’s the Liam McCarthy and Sam Maguire Cups, not the club titles. Now that would be a penalty that would focus minds on the club scene.

I had a few more thoughts on the matter generated by the Twitter discussion with respect to the future of the National League or the costs/benefits of keeping a knockout-ish system but those are things that you couldn’t get everyone to agree on, so I’ll leave it with the things that surely no reasonable person could disagree with. Now I will sally forth and purchase a Lotto ticket of which I am certain of total success.