Limerick’s league grievance past shouldn’t be let distort future

A six-team top division has aproved inadequate for the needs of everyone’s self-esteem

Wed, Apr 17, 2013, 10:00

Leaving aside the existential angst of the national league – who really wants to win it, what does it mean, how best to approach the season etc – an indication of how difficult a competition it is to organise can be seen in the grumblings about this year’s hurling format.

The outcry has concerned the structure of two six-county divisions, hierarchically arranged into Division One A and One B.

It’s a cultural disposition within the GAA to want to compete at the top regardless of your capacity realistically to do so. That’s why football’s Tommy Murphy Cup fell into abeyance – counties felt they were too good for its homely distinction.

Similarly in hurling, there are 10 counties who feel they should be part of any elite within the game. A six-team top division has accordingly proved inadequate for the needs of everyone’s self-esteem.

The top six aren’t crazy about it either because a five-match programme is very short on gate receipts.

But aside from everyone’s personal wish list, has it been a good idea?

It’s hard to argue with a denouement that meant everything was still open to everyone in the top division, with just two points separating first and last.

There were complaints it would do no good for anyone for one of the teams to be relegated, or indeed for the likes of Limerick, Wexford and Offaly to languish in the lower division.

But this ultra-inclusivity is completely at odds with the theme unveiled by Croke Park in its championship reforms and accepted by last month’s congress, which emphasise counties making progress on the basis of “earned” improvement – essentially supplanting those above them by defeating them on the field.

Entitlement
What has actually been demonstrated to “do nothing for the development of hurling” in aspiring counties is the idea that there is an elite who have an entitlement to play the top counties annually in the league.

It’s valid to feel sorry for Limerick, who earned promotion two years ago only for the system to change. That was the antithesis of the new principle of “earning your progress” in that changing the rules after a county has done just that is simply bad practice.

The county is apparently to request a format change from Croke Park but the team’s failure to be promoted after twice topping Division One B, however frustrating, was in keeping with the rules that there is just one promotion place for the top two counties in the table and that is to be decided by a play-off between them.

That has been changed from next year and the county that finishes first will go up, with the actual league title effectively a separate competition at the end of the season.

Of course it mightn’t be polite to say so – or particularly fair to John Allen and the current players – but the reason Limerick went down in the first place was because their county administration decided to hard-ball the senior hurlers and stand by as shadow teams got bludgeoned out of the top flight. They have had plenty of time to repent that carelessness at their leisure.

The curious blend of optimism and cynicism that prompted a delegate at Limerick county committee to predict that if Cork were to go down, the league would definitely be changed also looks misplaced.

Firstly, Cork show no signs of agitating for change. Jimmy Barry-Murphy philosophically said he’d been relegated during his first managerial term and would just have to concentrate on getting back next year.

No more tinkering
Secondly, Central Council took a strong view last January there should be no more tinkering with formats for another few years and it’s fairly unlikely Cork’s relegation will prompt second thoughts.

Some of the lore on this dates back eight years to Offaly’s now legendarily calamitous 2005 season in Division Two, which managed to combine absolute lack of competitiveness with a demoralising defeat.

The seven matches yielded an average winning margin of 16 points but along the way, they lost to Carlow.

Despite having been Leinster finalists the previous season they carried the twin inhibitions of a lack of serious match practice and damaged morale into a first round with Kilkenny and were beaten by 31 points.

That Division Two was, however, outside of the top 12 counties and pitched Offaly against Westmeath, Roscommon, Derry, Carlow, Kerry and Meath. It was a bad place to be for anyone preparing for the senior championship.

The idea, however, that the current Division One B saps teams of their potential is at best unproven. The evidence of one full year is that Clare, promoted last season, proved competitive in the semi-final against eventual winners Kilkenny and have held their own back in the top division.

Limerick’s misfortune didn’t stop the team giving impressive displays in the championship, including against champions Kilkenny in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Hard cases make bad law and Limerick’s justifiable grievance with what befell them two years ago shouldn't be allowed to distort the future.

smoran@irishtimes.com