Hurling has history of resistance to round-robin formats
Latest experiment with competitions will only succeed if GAA public gets behind it
The Cork and Tipperary teams parade before the 2006 Munster final which attracted a crowd of 53,076 to Semple Stadium in Thurles. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Did Liam Griffin have a point when he remarked on RTÉ’s GAA podcast this week that the hurling proposals, which emerged by degrees over the past few days, are a kneejerk reaction to the round-robin format to be introduced at the quarter-final stage of next year’s All-Ireland football championship?
He did and he didn’t.
There was undoubtedly a clamour (possibly not entirely anticipated) for some measure to enhance the hurling calendar in case the additional football fixtures sucked all the air out of the summer atmosphere.
But the urgency of the move to secure immediate acceptance for a remodelled championship is more a reflection of the reality that for the three seasons from 2018 to 2020 the football experiment will be trialled and if there is to be a similar departure in hurling it should be road-tested over the same period.
If accepted, it is to run in the same reduced championship window with All-Ireland finals in August and more of a gap between league and championship and so accommodates the tightening restrictions on the inter-county window.
To rewind, debate on football reform was something that GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl had actively encouraged after the May 2015 Central Council meeting had indicated dissatisfaction with the current format.
The process took a while because the original 18 proposals elicited by the president in a way led to nothing, as there was no consensus on any change apart from a mild interest in a graded All-Ireland, which was promptly rejected by the counties to whom it would ultimately have applied.
The proposals, though, laid the ground work for GAA director general Páraic Duffy to come up with the format that will begin a three-year trial next summer. This was fairly similar to the process by which the qualifier system emerged at a special congress in 2000 – on foot of proposals advanced by a sub-committee chaired by Duffy.
At the post-congress media conference last February, Duffy was asked about concerns that hurling would be overshadowed by the increase in football fixtures and whether the GAA might do anything to address that.
“We are very open to looking at the hurling structure,” he answered, “very open. There are actually some good suggestions out there. It’s not for me to put them out here today but if the hurling community – and this is really important to us – if they wish to look at their championship in terms of the number of games they have and so on then we’ll look at that.”
From that perspective, the impetus to do something with the hurling championship was reactive to concerns triggered by the publication of the football changes – including those expressed by the Club Players’ Association in their statement of January 24th that hurling would suffer.
In another way, they weren’t reactive at all because they had already been drawn up five years previously by the then hurling development workgroup but turned down at the time.
The same ideas caused surprise this time around because the assumption had been that hurling would aim for a round-robin at the concluding stages of the All-Ireland – to contest August hearts and minds – rather than at provincial level. The 2012 proposals took the earlier option.
Part of the wariness in respect of a last eight in hurling is that it sheds too few competitors along the way. Former Galway manager and captain Conor Hayes pointed out on these pages this week that with the restricted field in hurling, any round-robin at the latter stages would risk repeat fixtures as well as the same candidates presenting themselves every year.
This was the same argument used against the eight-team All-Ireland quarter-finals, which operated between 2005 and 2007 when the format incorporated a round-robin qualifier series.
In 2007, the process took two months and 24 matches (not counting the Ulster championship which no longer feeds into the All-Ireland championship) to reduce 10 or 11 teams to eight.
In each of the three years, the identity of all eight teams was exactly the same.
So, despite the competitive integrity of requiring all eight counties to do the same thing to win the All-Ireland once they had reached the quarter-finals, the structure was dismantled for 2008.
There is serendipity about seeking to roll out the new format – two round-robin provincial championships with five counties (how Leinster sheds one has yet to be decided) played on a two-home and two-away basis with the top two going to the respective finals and the third-placed county to the All-Ireland quarter-finals to await the provincial losers – at the moment.
Apply the format when Kilkenny were in their pomp and how attractive are the group matches? Even accepting a competitive environment, the old concerns about round-robin competition apply.
Crowds at the qualifiers between 2005 and 2007 were considerably lower than the fixtures otherwise attracted.
As a mechanism for more matches it’s fine but as a promotional measure it has its limitations. The new structure, assuming it finds its way through Central Council and a special congress, will have to address a Leinster championship that last year, pre-final brought in 31,776 spectators at an average of 6,355 (or 40,202 and 3,517 if you want to include the preliminary rounds, a new version of which has still to be agreed).
The figures for Munster are much better (74,360 and 24,786) but in 2007 Cork and Tipperary met in the qualifier round-robin. A year after they had pulled 53,076 to the Munster final in Thurles, they were watched at the same venue by 12,833.
Even taking into account the changed circumstances of the teams by 2007, the more uncomfortable fact was that it was also a dead rubber.
It’s not the nature of the GAA’s reaction – kneejerk or not – that’s so much at issue.
Haunting the experimental formats – in both football and hurling – like a spectre is the as yet unknown response of the public to any sort of competitive imbalance. That’s what will judge the outcome.