Croke Park at the end of September, it’s not what it used to be.
Still, the devotees will come from all corners of Ireland and further afield on Saturday for a special day in the old cathedral. Because for some Gaels the only occasion that could ever surpass GAA Annual Congress is GAA Special Congress.
At 11am the fun and games will begin, but there won’t be a ball struck in anger throughout the afternoon. These are contests of the boardrooms not the dressingrooms, yet it would be unsound to believe the outcomes of the debates won’t ultimately have an impact on the playing fields.
Just ask any of the six teams competing in the 2024 Joe McDonagh Cup. The first of the 11 motions on the clár for this Special Congress has the potential to alter the format of next year’s top two tiers in the hurling championship.
Central Council are proposing to discontinue preliminary quarter-finals in the All-Ireland SHC – essentially cutting out a route for the Joe McDonagh Cup finalists to participate in the Liam MacCarthy that same season.
When the McDonagh Cup was structured and launched in 2018, an avenue leading directly to the All-Ireland SHC in the same season was one of the incentives provided to those competing in hurling’s second tier.
However, officials in Croke Park now argue the lopsided nature of the preliminary quarter-finals has necessitated a rethink.
Carlow won last year’s McDonagh Cup and have been promoted to the Leinster SHC for next year, but they have played in two All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals, against Limerick in 2018 and Dublin in 2023.
And Carlow chairman Jim Bolger believes the GAA are not looking at the wider picture on this matter.
“The competition was sold on the premise that the finalists would get the opportunity to play in the Liam MacCarthy, so the goalposts are being moved here to a certain extent,” says Bolger.
“There is a significant promotional opportunity with these games, and for counties trying to promote hurling we don’t get too many chances like this.”
Prior to Carlow’s clash against Dublin in Netwatch Cullen Park in June, the county board organised an open day. Throngs of kids turned up and surrounded the Carlow hurlers that evening. Dublin ran out 2-25 to 0-21 winners of the match, but the occasion and the build-up were possibly more important than the fixture’s outcome in fostering and maintaining an interest in hurling among kids in Carlow.
“You can’t put a price on that promotion, you couldn’t get a Carlow jersey that week,” continues Bolger.
“When it comes to growing hurling you want to provide people with every chance to do so, but with this motion we are actually trying to take an opportunity away from counties. This kind of feels like a knee-jerk reaction.”
Laois are the only county to have won an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final post a McDonagh Cup decider – the O’Moore County beat Dublin in 2019.
The motion that will be voted upon on Saturday seeks to remove preliminary quarter-finals and instead see the third-placed teams in both the Munster and Leinster championships facing the second-placed teams from the alternative province.
A follow-up motion proposes the second- and third-placed teams in the McDonagh Cup will meet in a semi-final, with the winner advancing to the decider against the first-placed side.
“What we are looking to do is introduce semi-finals,” says GAA director general Tom Ryan. “It’s with a view to making what is a really good competition even better.
“The counter part of that is that the two finalists will not proceed to a preliminary quarter-final in the Liam MacCarthy in the current year. The proposal is that instead the Liam MacCarthy will be streamlined somewhat and of course the winner of the Joe McDonagh will be promoted to the Liam MacCarthy for the following year.”
There is also a motion on the agenda regarding eligibility at minor level, while an important proposal will be tabled in relation to gender balance on the GAA’s management committee.
“We are looking to make sure the membership of the national management committee will comprise of at least 40 per cent female members,” explains Ryan.
“Oddly enough the grassroots of the organisation is already leading the way on that front. In excess of 30 per cent of club officers at the moment are women, but for some reason that voice hasn’t yet emerged at national level.
“What we are trying to do is put in place a framework that will facilitate that process. I think it’s fitting and appropriate for the GAA, we see ourselves as a progressive and an inclusive organisation so I think a measure like that is important.”
It is a significant motion for several reasons, because in January the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media informed sports organisations that at least 40 per cent of their governing boards should be female by the end of 2023.
Failure to move in that direction could have an impact on future government funding.
“People will be aware as well that there is also a statutory angle to this,” adds Ryan. “So we have a responsibility to do our part with regard to that as well. And I think it is way of making sure we safeguard our State funding, going forward.”
The GAA management committee currently has 19 members. Three of those are female, which translates to 16 per cent. The motion proposes a staggered approach that would initially see the management committee increased to 21 members in 2024, with nine positions designated for females.
SPECIAL CONGRESS KEY MOTIONS
♦ To discontinue All-Ireland SHC preliminary quarter-finals. Instead, the third- placed team in the Leinster SHC would play the second-placed team in the Munster SHC in an All-Ireland quarter-final, and vice-versa. The McDonagh Cup finalists would no longer compete in the Liam MacCarthy in that same year. An additional motion seeks to introduce a semi-final in the McDonagh Cup.
♦ A motion to introduce additional tiers to the All-Ireland minor football and hurling championships. Also, the GAA want to confirm Galway’s participation in the Leinster minor hurling championship.
♦ A proposal to put in rule that the All-Ireland senior finals should be played on or before the last Sunday in July.
♦ A motion seeking to achieve a gender balance on the GAA’s management committee of a minimum 40 per cent female or male representation.
♦ A proposal that a player must have celebrated his 17th birthday prior to January 1st of that championship year to be eligible to play at adult club level. The motion also allows counties to determine age eligibility for minor competitions under their control, whether that be deemed under-17 or under-18.