The Big Three – in a League of their own

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Miracles never cease. For once, the National Hurling League finds itself not having to defend itself against charges of unfairness/irrelevance/pointlessness/boredom/all of the above as the fate of nearly every team went down, quite literally, to the last puck of the final round of matches. Had Waterford or Cork conjured up late goals in their respective games then the table would have spun like a top. As it was, there is some slight irritation to see the All-Ireland, Munster and Leinster champions in the top three places, giving an unfair impression of as-you-were. But overall it has been a rollercoaster contest, and given the usual denunciations of the League format for being all of the above, the authorities have much to be pleased about.

Sadly for them, and happily for those of us who like to be disagreeable for the sake of it, it’s never that simple. Each team’s performance will only be properly assessed in September. No doubt there was some pundit somewhere who wrote a preview of last year’s All-Ireland final and opined that Galway’s playoff torment last year when they only got past Dublin after a replay was really a blessing in disguise as it toughened them up for what was to come. Clare and Cork will be hard pressed to see those advantages from their current perspective. Then there’s Waterford, the only team without a game between now and the Championship. Will we be better off for coming into the Clare game fresh, or worse off for not having another game in which to iron out the kinks? No sod knows, but that won’t stop experts rushing in to fill the vacuum of knowledge with their considered opinions.

While I may scoff at the meanderings of pundits, all the while hopefully giving off a sense of awareness of the irony of a blogger scoffing at the meandering of pundits, there is ultimately no damage done by their retrospective know-it-all attitude to the League. More serious is what happens next. Not at the top of the League where Tipperary, Kilkenny and Galway will trip over themselves to downplay its significance, all the while skirting around the challenge provided by whoever emerges from the Limerick-Dublin promotion playoff, a team that will be as high as a kite from the relief of escaping the abyss that is Division 1B. No, the serious business is the result of the Clare-Cork relegation playoff.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories. It’s always amusing how people rub their chins in a told-you-so fashion about how they predicted the draw for the Championship, particularly the qualifiers, before it happened. Note that these predictions are never revealed until after the draw was made. It’s not as if you would need to put your prediction in a sealed envelope with a postmark on it or take a photo with the newspaper from the day the prediction was made for it to be a verifiable vision of the future. All that’s needed is to put it on a message board and viola! the corruption of those in positions of power is laid bare. Maybe those making these self-evidently foolish accusations of corruption are plants designed to distract from the true seers and their plaintive cries, lost in the wilderness of obfuscation. It’s genius, I tell you, evil genius!

Okay, that paragraph went off on a tangent too far. The concern from the Clare-Cork game is simple. If Cork get relegated and they change the format of the League then all suggestions that the GAA is hard-wired to bow to the needs of the Big Three will have found a solid example from which even the loopiest of conspiracies can claim validity. Despite the thrilling 2013 season, the current League format is not without problems. Tom Dempsey got a lot of stick from Waterford supporters for blithely talking around us on RTÉ’s Sunday Sport programme as if we don’t exist, but anyone who listened to him a lot through the spring will have heard his repeated objections to the one-up-one-down format of Divisions 1A/B, and he’s right. It’s simply not fair that Limerick should have to enter a playoff against Dublin to see who gets promoted, just as it was unfair last year that Galway had to playoff against Dublin last year despite winning two games to Dublin’s none, and finishing ahead of Waterford on points difference but losing on the head-to-head – they might feel some small sense of satisfaction that it was us who lost out to them on the head-to-head this year.

It’s unfair, but no one in authority cares as long as it’s only the grunts who count their All-Ireland successes in single figures that fall into its clutches. So you can well imagine the hysterics that will erupt in Croke Park should Cork find themselves in Division 1B next year. When Cork failed to fulfil fixtures in the 2008 NHL, their only penalty was to have the games awarded to the opposition, one of which happened to be against Waterford. There was understandable fury in Wexford as Waterford were effectively gifted two points while Wexford played and lost to a full-strength Cork. Had it been the other way around, and Waterford ended up losing to Cork in a playoff to see who got into the knockout stages, it would have been Waterford who ended up in Division 2 for 2009. Every action that was taken was designed to accommodate Cork – God forbid that they might be penalised for distorting the competition in the manner they did – and we were the lucky beneficiaries of those actions. With all that in mind, can you see the GAA accepting the status quo should Clare beat Cork and the Rebels find themselves slumming it with Antrim and Laois/Westmeath next year? Yerra, the League will seem ripe for another restructuring and the success of Division 1A in providing so many thrills and spills in 2013 be damned.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Headquarters will be pleased to see that no one is safe. Maybe they’ll respect the integrity of the process. I’m happy to be proven wrong, and it’s why I’m hoping Clare beat Cork. If this happens and Cork are banished to the quicksands of Division 1B, I’ll be delighted to hold my hands up and say I misjudged those who run the association and their motivations. Should Cork lose though and the League is rejigged to keep them in the standards to which they are accustomed, I may find myself donning a tinfoil hat with all the other kooks claiming that those making the Championship draws don’t rattle those balls/hurleys in the pot with sufficient vigour.

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