How the GAA wound up wide of the mark on our All-Ireland hurling championship

Reverting to the four quarter-finals format would address the gap between matches

Cork’s Aidan Walsh, Lorcan McLoughlin and Daniel Kearney tackle Seamus Callanan of Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Cork’s Aidan Walsh, Lorcan McLoughlin and Daniel Kearney tackle Seamus Callanan of Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho


That didn’t take too long. As Kilkenny and Tipperary take up positions for a fourth All-Ireland final in six years, it’s looking like last year’s hurling revolution was more Robert Emmet than Robespierre.

If the biggest shock of the weekend was Cork’s non-arrival for the All-Ireland semi-final it couldn’t obscure the emergence – or, more accurately re-emergence – of Tipperary.

Ironically, by the standards of the most overheated expectations in the county after the 2010 All-Ireland win this year was going to be the culmination of a first five-in-a-row. A performance like Sunday’s would have greatly encouraged those prospects, had the intervening three years not been 24-carat disasters.

Tipp are back and back in the same circumstances of four years ago, having put a demoralising defeat behind them and picked up the momentum of a runaway train over the intervening distance.

Cork’s defeat has focused attention on the resolutely poor record of Munster champions in the All-Ireland series over the past decade. But suffice it to say that Munster counties coming through the qualifiers are slightly more likely to reach All-Ireland finals and twice as likely to win them as the actual Munster champions.

Exceptional Kilkenny

Tipperary’s Tommy Dunne – someone who has been involved as a coach with Munster and Leinster champions in recent years – said in this newspaper that it was time something was done to address the five-week gap between winning provincial titles and playing All-Ireland semi-finals, a spell of inactivity that looks like a structural disadvantage for provincial champions.

He makes the point that Leinster appear not to suffer from this difficulty primarily because Kilkenny have been provincial champions in all but three of the past 17 years and they have been an exception to everything.

It is possible that there’s another difference. The standard in Munster has been a lot more competitive over the same period and potential All-Ireland winners accordingly more at risk in the provincial stages.

Football has taught the value of losing. Malfunctioning teams have received useful jolts and been able to diagnose what needs work or replacement. The qualifiers have rebuilt a number of shattered All-Ireland contenders and sent them back to Croke Park as Robocop.

Significantly or not, Kilkenny have sustained the preponderance of their All-Ireland defeats against qualifier teams.

Tommy Dunne wasn’t sure how the trend of under-performing provincial champions might be best addressed because it’s hard to cut down on the amount of time between provincial finals and All-Ireland semi-finals when quarter-finals have to be played in between.

The answer is obvious – because it was in operation for three years.

Between 2005 and 2007 the hurling championship featured four quarter-finals by involving the provincial champions at that stage.

It was scrapped because of a desire to give provincial champions a tangible reward for their achievement but it’s becoming increasingly questionable to what extent the bye into August is working as a reward.

During the three years of the previous format only one of the six All-Ireland finalists, Limerick in 2007, had previously lost a match and all three of the MacCarthy Cup winners were provincial champions.

This isn’t to ignore the circumstances of those years when Kilkenny were on the way to dominating the game and a good Cork side were just coming to the end. But even disregarding that evidence the theoretical advantages are compelling.

Provincial championship

It delivers two additional top-class fixtures at the All-Ireland stage of the season and requires the ultimate champions to go to the same starting line as everyone else and ensures that all teams from late July have the same number of obstacles to surmount.

The arguments against it before the GAA dismantled the format were that it didn’t provide sufficient recognition for provincial winners and that it took too long to eliminate teams so that after two months of championship, no Munster county had been eliminated and that was somehow undermining the provincial championship.

Why that should make a difference wasn’t clear. Munster is the strongest province in terms of its depth and at various stages of the game’s history it hasn’t been unusual for the five Munster hurling counties to be in the top eight nationally.

Anyway it’s been commonplace for three Munster counties to be in the All-Ireland semi-finals under the current system, which isn’t a bountiful rate of culling.

Football operates the system of four quarter-finals, having too many functioning provinces to guarantee their champions advancement. There have been occasional voices raised against the represented injustice of provincial winners not having a second chance in the championship, but those arguments have never found favour at congress.

Why is it acceptable to extend additional privileges to provincial hurling champions but not to their football equivalent?

The irony is that a measure introduced because of a desire to reward provincial champions and fears for the status of the Munster championship has ended up rendering the province’s champions increasingly irrelevant to the All-Ireland race.

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