Derek McGrath: New league format will benefit player welfare
Former Waterford manager believes reduced relegation risk will allow for rotation
Derek McGrath speaking at The GAA Games Development Conference. Photograph: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The final matches of this year’s hurling league will mark the end of a successful six-year format, which will change next year.
The introduction of two mixed-ability groups in Division One rather than a hierarchical 1A and 1B means there will be no realistic threat of relegation for top counties and no opportunity for weaker or emerging counties to test themselves against the top teams in league quarter-finals.
Although initially seen as potentially uncompetitive and damaging, the quarter-finals turned out to be so successful a stepping stone that three 1B counties won the league – a trend pioneered by McGrath’s Waterford in 2015 – and in the past two years the All-Ireland champions have come out of the division.
The argument against the structure has been that it is so cut-throat in the top flight with counties desperate not to be relegated that team building suffered.
One of the chief advocates of change has been Derek McGrath, whose five years as manager of Waterford concluded last season.
“For the five years I was involved this was something I espoused. You could never say that the players on the pitch aren’t going to try their best but the results don’t count as much when you’re not going to be relegated. It’s not as crucial.
“I think it will help player welfare issues because county managers won’t be under the same pressure to get results in every game. I remember our match last year against Tipp we didn’t play 10 fellas that had had Fitzgibbon the week before. We risked losing the points – and we did and were subsequently relegated.
“Next year though, there’ll be a perception that Westmeath and Carlow – and that’s not with any hint of disrespect to them – will be the bottom team in either division.”
A primary consideration for him was the load on players at college, playing Fitzgibbon Cup and the pressure to play them in critical matches under the more intense conditions of the outgoing structure.
“The other thing is that I’ve always had a big connection with the Fitzgibbon going back to my time with UCC. This format will allow some leeway for the colleges by making it easier for managers to let players hurl with their colleges. The social benefits of allowing players stay with their college teams is actually good for the counties. You get fresh players back, who are happy with how they’ve been treated.
“I remember our first game last year against Wexford: we’d played some challenges against Na Piarsaigh, Dublin and Offaly and done really well with a fresh team. But for the first league game, I went back to the tried and trusted fellas that had got us to an All-Ireland the previous year just to try and get the two points on the board and that backfired on me.
“You’re chasing it after that and I don’t think any team had to chase it this year. It’s a different dynamic when you take away the threat of relegation. It’s left it nearly impossible to read now because previously one team was going into the championship with their confidence dissipated by relegation and maybe doubt set in.”
He doesn’t feel that the relegation play-off between the two bottom teams was a sufficient hedge against going down and feels that the quarter-finals as established were simply unfair.
“The two years we were relegated, we had four points and in one those years we were actually ahead of the team that relegated us. I think its major flaw as a format was that the 10th team in the league got to quarter-final while the fifth team didn’t.”
For all that he acknowledges that the season Waterford spent in the lower division after relegation was very useful for the team’s evolution and contributed to his team reaching the All-Ireland final in 2017.
“Oh yeah. Very useful. Our spell in 1B came on the back of radically reshaping the team in terms of personnel. We left out 10 or 11 and the season in the lower division was great in terms of building confidence under the radar because no one notices you until the knock-outs and nothing beats confidence. It’s a cliche but yes, it’s very useful.
“When we won the league in 2015, I think it was Kieran Shannon (Irish Examiner), who wrote that in the previous 18 years every team except one that had won the league reached an All-Ireland within two years.”
McGrath and Waterford maintained that pattern but ended up – maybe ironically – losing to Division 1B county, Galway in the 2017 All-Ireland final.