Hurling by numbers: how the small ball eclipsed football’s summer
Fears that the new Super 8s would overshadow hurling have been gloriously confounded
Referee Paud O’Dwyer throws the ball in for extra-time. Photograph: Inpho/Oisín Keniry
At this remove it appears fairly ironic that the focus of the GAA’s desire to trial championship reforms was so obviously football. There were policy announcements that ideas would be looked at and debated. When that ground to a halt, largely through diversity of opinion as to what precise changes were wanted, a detailed blueprint of round-robin All-Ireland quarter-finals, fitted into a far more compact season, emerged.
That went full steam ahead at last year’s congress but afterwards and in some cases even beforehand, among the reactions triggered were expressions of alarm that hurling would suffer in the face of wall-to-wall football from mid-July on.
Proposals for hurling reform, which gave us the format on which the best championship in memory has been based, were initially distrusted as being merely knee-jerk responses to the advantages that football would enjoy from 2018. With just four scheduled weekends left in this year’s championship, we crunch the numbers to see how inaccurate that perception has been.
If there has been a consensus reservation about the provincial hurling championships it has been that the schedule required a full programme of matches every week with one team idle and the other four in action. This meant in practice that some teams had to play three matches in successive weekends. The only team that won such a fixture was Galway, whose final match against Dublin was a dead-rubber but even then they only scraped in by a point.
The format also required two teams in each province to play on four consecutive weekends. Of those four counties, three – last year’s All-Ireland finalists Waterford, semi-finalists Tipperary, and Offaly, who were relegated, failed to make the knockout stages of the championship.
Only Offaly struggled without respite and even they weren’t helped by having to play four matches on the bounce
The sole exception was Wexford and they missed out on a place in the provincial final and were defeated in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. It is expected that on review, the GAA will address the problem for next year.
The new format has left one startling modern trend completely unaltered. Sunday’s defeat of Cork by Limerick was the sixth time in the past seven years that the Munster champions have failed to win their All-Ireland semi-final and stretched farther, the ninth time in 12 seasons. Intensifying the disappointment has been the fact that on seven of these occasions, the losing county has been beaten by fellow provincials, which has taken some of the shine off the Munster cup.
Neither can this be explained as a general phenomenon. Over the same period, beginning in 2007, the Leinster champions have been beaten on just one occasion – when Dublin lost to Cork in 2013 – although the jury is out on this year’s title holders, Galway, for at least another week.
The round-robin format in the provincial hurling championships was an idea drawn up in 2012 by the then hurling development workgroup but turned down at the time. At first glance it seemed underwhelming in comparison with football’s equivalent, coming as that did in the All-Ireland quarter-finals and giving rise to an appropriately glamorous styling, the Super 8s. As circumstances have unfolded, the top 10 has more than held its own. Only Offaly struggled without respite and even they weren’t helped by having to play four matches on the bounce. Otherwise there were just the one dead-rubber and all other matches had something hanging on the outcome.
So successful was the new provincial format that hurling has completely overshadowed football this summer. The Leinster and Munster championships dominated the opening weeks and, for good measure, on the opening weekend of the Super 8s the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals – especially the Limerick-Kilkenny epic – proved as invasive as knotweed and the concluding weekend must co-exist with the Galway-Clare replay.
Personal experience indicates that if the remaining fixtures go to schedule, I’ll have been dispatched to 13 hurling matches and five football by the end of the summer. Last year over the same period the figures were nine-nine.
Putting the best spin on the attendance statistics for the new format – and why not? – the consequences have been dramatically beneficial for the championships and the provincial councils organising them.
Taking 2017 as a benchmark, Leinster went up from 109,096 last year, including a record crowd for the final between Galway and Wexford, to 172,742, which admittedly includes a replayed final, something not seen for 25 years – a 58 per cent increase.
One of the semi-finals obstinately refused to be settled on the day, so Galway and Clare take their business on tour with a replay in Thurles
In Munster, the improvement wasn’t quite as startling, but it was fairly impressive, going up 47 per cent from last year’s total of 127,997 to 188,665 – this despite having the same Cork-Clare final as 12 months ago, coming after a vastly extended provincial campaign during which the sides had obviously already met.
For the first time, and as part of the calendar rationalising, both All-Ireland semi-finals were played on the one weekend with extra-time ordained to try to head off replays, which are venom in the veins of organising committees.
But the course of Gaelic games never did run smooth and despite the new dispensation, one of the semi-finals obstinately refused to be settled on the day, so Galway and Clare take their business on tour with a replay in Thurles. Maybe there are those in Croke Park, who shed a silent tear over the loss of a bumper replay between Limerick and Cork but one will have to do.
It was Clare’s most vibrant performance since they were last in Croke Park and Limerick have edged a little closer to finally leaving behind the Vale of Tears in which they’ve been trapped since 1973.
For those who promoted the idea of the two semi-finals being a “festival of hurling”, the weekend couldn’t have gone any better with all four teams hitting 30 points and a host of other remarkable feats. All told the two matches, including running time, injury-time and extra time, lasted for 201 minutes.