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Cause for cautious optimism on hurling and fixtures reform

Can a sceptical public about the merits of being weaned off knock-out competitions?

There have been sufficient signs of life in both Leinster, unusually, and Munster to convince the framers of the Central Council motion that the structure can work. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The GAA special congress in Croke Park this Saturday will be a multilayered event. Ostensibly convened to consider ways of improving the hurling championship, it can end up having a far more profound effect on the big issue of the day – the hitherto untameable fixtures monster.

Put simply, if the Central Council proposal – more or less accepted as the one with the best prospects of success – is successful, the hurling calendar can be slotted in, tongue and groove, with the experimental football format for a three-year trial period.

Whereas there are obvious concerns about how these structures will work, they are, after all, just experiments, and there is at least a parallel interest in freeing additional weekends for club activities.

Aggregated, the various reforms of recent years – rationalising under-age grades, reducing replays and so on – can produce a 50 per cent increase in intercounty-free weekends between 2016 and 2018, from 16 to 23 or 24.

Small trimmings as well as big cuts can facilitate this further: eliminating All-Ireland under-21 semi-finals by taking Ulster and Galway into Leinster and All-Ireland club quarter-finals by bringing the British clubs into Connacht.

On the substance of the championship reforms, Paudie O’Neill, chairman of the hurling development committee, said in these pages during the week that they were essentially reactive in that as soon as the football experiment of a round-robin format in the All-Ireland quarter-finals was accepted, the cry went up for something to be done about hurling.

Competing proposals

As O’Neill further pointed out, much of the debate that has followed has been equally reactive, with counties defending their perceived interests as much as reimagining the optimal format for the hurling championship.

The competing proposals from Cork, Tipperary and Dublin aren’t expected to attract greater support than Central Council’s, but there’s no guarantee that any of them will be accepted, even allowing for the newly lowered bar for changing rules, which was taken down from two-thirds to 60 per cent at last February’s annual congress.

Central Council’s motion isn’t merely about shifting around the furniture. It has a philosophical thrust in wanting to provide more competitive fixtures in the championship calendar.

The vehicle for this, round robins in both the Leinster and Munster championships, isn’t guaranteed roadworthy as the format relies on parity of standards and engaging a hitherto sceptical public about the merits of being weaned off knock-out competitions.

There have, however, been sufficient signs of life in both Leinster, unusually, and Munster to convince the framers of the Central Council motion that the structure can work.

Nor is it entirely a matter for the traditional hurling counties, many of whom oppose the plans, as the provision of more fixtures and greater calendar certainty for those graded in the Ring and Rackard Cups has relevance to many football counties.

Here it is

There is also some controversy in the reduction of numbers, from 12 to 10, in the elite MacCarthy Cup. Counties on the cusp are unhappy that they will be confined to a Tier 2 championship with promotion that won’t become operative until the following year.

This has led to an amending motion from three of those affected – Meath (who competed in Leinster last year); Laois (who qualified for the championship proper); and Offaly (odds-on to be relegated the first year the new format kicks in) – which seeks to allow the Tier 2 finalists access to the MacCarthy Cup.

It seems harmless but there is considerable alarm among officials that the Central Council motion could be accepted and then a couple of emotive speeches later, an amendment that would, in one estimate, add three weekends to the championship thrown in to compromise any progress.

Will the proposal succeed? Even its advocates aren’t sure but there is a sturdy optimism that it may just edge into positive territory.

As one official put it: “After the football changes, you were all looking for something. Here it is!”