Inter-county Hurling – Where now?

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Key decisions on hurling loom large on the horizon

Picture this. Imagine the English professional club soccer season. Imagine if only the Premier League teams played fixtures after next October for the remainder of the season while the rest of the football league (championship, league one and league two) wrapped up after only eight games.

Now picture this. June 27th and at the time of publishing this article, we have only twelve counties still playing competitive inter-county hurling championship games while all other counties including the likes of London, Warwickshire and Lancashire are done for the year with the bleak prospect of not playing another competitive inter-county hurling game until 2018.

With the rumors and speculation on an impending Hurling Super Eight format to be proposed at the specially convened congress soon, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the proposal and wonders have the powers that be at Croke Park and the big hurling counties realized the ramifications of the move.

The Proposal

As part of the proposal, five teams will play in each provincial championship – with each team guaranteed two home and away games. Significantly, it guarantees home games for Galway in Leinster for the first time.

The top two teams in each group will contest the provincial finals, while the two third placed teams will face the losing provincial finalists in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The two provincial winners progress to the All-Ireland semi-final.

These round robin games will take place in the early stages of the championship, meaning knock-out games from quarter-finals onwards.

Hypothetical Draw

Munster Leinster
Clare Dublin
Cork Galway
Limerick Kilkenny
Tipperary Wexford
Waterford Offaly or Laois or Carlow

The Merits

For the teams involved in this new round robin format, increased revenues as all teams will be guaranteed two home games. It is particular good news for Galway who have had to travel to various Leinster venues to fulfill senior hurling fixtures in recent years with little financial reward.

Galway issued their intention to leave the Leinster provincial championship but probably seen the Munster situation and realized quite quickly that only Cork, Tipperary and Limerick have a home and away arrangement in place. Something had to change and this is the perfect solution for Galway to address their revenue stream issues in the Leinster SHC.

Clare and Waterford fans will now have championship games in their own backyard. Superb opportunity for these teams to promote the sport further within these counties with hugely competitive games in home grounds. You only have to see the scenes in Wexford a couple of weeks ago when the Model County defeated Kilkenny to get a sense of the upturn and interest in the game. It can only be good for those two teams.

There are equal number of games for teams to play in the round robin format for all participating teams. It has being leveled that Leinster SHC has favored the provincial champions with an automatic bye to the last four compared to Munster. Take Cork this season; an arduous journey to the Munster final having to beat Tipperary and Waterford was taken. Equality in fixture scheduling, the same number of preliminary games with the promise of consistent competitive encounters.

The Drawbacks

Gap between the big and small teams to widen even further

A concept which will boost the coffers of the big hurling counties and turn a blind eye to the interests of the emerging counties looking to improve in the sport.

The emerging and minnow hurling counties have reached crisis point. Fixture scheduling resulting in sparse attendances, low gate receipts and significantly minimal media coverage.

The fact that RTE did not feel compelled to televise the latter stages of any of these competitions was a massive disservice to all involved, competition organizers and the organization truth be told. The station ran lavish commercial adverts about the upcoming GAA championship while these competitions were on. A bit rich to be honest.

Why not give televised media coverage to these competitions? There were many compelling stories in these competitions such as Liam Watson lining out for Warwickshire after an illustrious career with Antrim,  Leitrim hurler Zak Moradi originally from Iraq and the re-emergence of the Cavan hurling team after a couple of years in hiatus.

The Cavan story was a magnificent effort from the Cavan Hurling Development board whose determination and hard work has led to the side back playing inter-county and establishing solid foundations for the game underage going forward in both hurling and camogie. Special kudos to Mark Hayes who was a vocal supporter of this initiative throughout either on social media or on the ground in Cavan!

We probably witnessed one of the best All Ireland Hurling final performances in the Christy Ring Cup final when James Doyle hit  a superb 4-1 to inspire Carlow to victory over a well fancied Antrim outfit. Carlow’s progress this season has being admirable with Colm Bonnar at the helm but zero national coverage on their progress until last weekend when they bowed out to Laois.

The Kildare team had an excellent season with Joe Quaid at the helm whose backroom team contained Adrian O’Sullivan who wrote a superb piece a couple of weeks ago on the plight of teams such as the Lilywhites. If you have not read it, strongly recommend the article to see the sacrifices that players and management put in during the year: What About Us?

Excellent progress has being made this season in counties such as Kildare. Investment has being put in by county boards like Kildare to promote the game but that hard work looks potentially lost because of no opportunity for emerging hurling sides to get to the next level and test themselves against the very best if this proposal passes.

Club Player

What about the club player? You hear so much from Croke Park about tackling the issues faced by the ordinary club player but these proposals will only alienate this inner fabric of the organization even further.

A senior club player is committing several nights during the week and weekends to train for the hope of county title glory but in some counties, senior club championship games are at a standstill.

Take Waterford for instance. Before their defeat to Cork in the Munster SHC two weeks ago, no county championship games in senior ranks for eight weeks prior to the fixture. This is absolutely scandalous for a senior club player to train for little reward in this time of the year which is the most suitable for hurling. I presume this was the same for IHC in the county as well particularly if county players were supposed to feature in these fixtures.

A winter slog beckons for many senior club hurlers again this season which would seriously demoralize the players and the club management teams nationwide. It is now a marathon club championship which incurs massive expense to clubs, some who are struggling to make ends meet. The big parish clubs have some hope but for the many, it is another burden on the coffers. CPA need to be swift and provide a voice to these players immediately.

Match Officials – Development

What about the match officials? What about the young referee prospect? The proposal looks to condemn any talent development in this regard with the same top tier referee panel appointments continuing to officiate the key games in the Super Eight format.

The young referee will be cast off to the hurling tundras, being assessed to an inch of their lives; common sense going out the window and multiple red cards being issued for incidents than in the bigger games would hardly warrant a stoppage in play.

The Super Eight proposal does little to garner and promote referee development and ability for a referee to climb the ladder to officiate key games. The fact that the hurling referees are the same makeup year in, year out does little to dispel this notion.

Ordinary Joe Soap – The Hurling Fan

The ordinary fan as well will need to stump up the hard earned cash to either go and support their team or have to buy a subscription to a terrestrial broadcasting network who have as much interest in the development of the sport as to retain Ireland customers. If Sky Sports could be brought on board like Lidl  (Ladies football) to invest in the game, launching grassroot programs then I would be enthused but this has not happened since their coverage started some years ago.

Limerick hurling fans potentially will have only two championship games all season; both games televised by Sky Sports. I need not say anymore with respect to the elderly hurling supporter living out in the county who has no way of getting to the games; cannot watch the coverage so the trusted hand radio in a remote farmhouse will be listened to.

Different demographics but form the backbone of the association. It has the potential to create a three tier hurling system; the big counties playing the Super Eight and essentially turning professional with increasing revenue streams; the emerging and minnow counties who will desperately look for fixtures during the year and the ordinary senior club player who trains tirelessly to the point where he gives up on senior, goes down to junior level to get game time or just quits the sport outright.

The Super Eight is a nice idea but there are fatal flaws to it, time to reflect and for county boards to challenge the proposal in depth. It would be galling if this proposal gets passed without any resistance or discussion.

In my next blog, will look at some proposals which could improve the current situation, hope this blog sets the context on my reservations for the proposed Super Eight format. I have mentioned this topic briefly throughout several blog postings this year but felt tonight was the night to deal with the issue head on.