Paudie O'Neill had been expecting the call. As chair of the GAA's Hurling Development Committee he knew that as soon as the football championship had been booked in for a three-year trial of radical change, attention would turn to hurling.
At the post-Congress media conference last Saturday GAA, director general Páraic Duffy responded to the repeated concern that football with its enhanced fixture list would dominate the summer by saying, "we are very open to looking at the hurling structure, very open".
O’Neill isn’t jumping head first into emulating the new football blueprint but equally, he acknowledges that things won’t remain the same.
“Over the last while the football side of things took precedence in terms of changes. From the hurling point of view I think change is inevitable and will happen. What needs to be established is how that is going to be brought about and that will be a matter for Coiste Bainistí and the Ard Comhairle determining the process.
“Then the whole thing needs to be looked at in a coherent, inter-connected way because any changes have huge knock-on effects down the line for clubs and other sectors. We have a tendency in the GAA to focus on one area without looking at the consequences for other areas.”
Hurling was actually the first of the games to embrace radical departure when 20 years ago for the first time, the senior All-Ireland moved away from the primacy of sudden-death format by allowing defeated provincial finalists re-enter the championship.
Football followed four years later with the qualifiers, which hurling adopted the following season.
Ironically, given the alarm expressed over the imbalance between big matches in the two games, it was a previous HDC which decided to discontinue the eight-team All-Ireland quarter-finals, which were part of the landscape up until 10 years ago.
O’Neill doesn’t disagree with his predecessors: “Personally, I think it was the right thing to do. There are a limited number of top-quality teams.”
He believes however that hurling needs improvement as much as football. One problem he identifies as central is the sprawling length of championship seasons and the consequent training-matches ratio. He cites the Celtic Challenge, a competition for 17-year olds not involved in the Leaving Cert nor in their county development squads.
“It was a major project for us and we ran it within a very defined season. What coaches, mentors and players loved about it was getting six matches in six weeks. The second thing was that it was played within a defined season; you weren’t starting in January and slogging all year. The third thing was the training-to-games ratio was 1:1.”
He says that a a tighter time frame could work for the MacCarthy Cup.
“Absolutely. I think hurling has one advantage over football. Structurally there is already an acceptance that you have tiers: MacCarthy, Ring, Rackard and Lory Meagher. No-one in the Meagher Cup is screaming to be in the Liam MacCarthy – they know they’d be out of their depth.
“I spoke to an inter-county player who said that his first priority would be to cut back the gaps. I asked what would be ideal and he said three weeks – one to play with the club and two to prepare for the next county game. At the moment you could be waiting for anything up to six weeks.”
O’Neill would also like to see graded championship finals replacing the minors on All-Ireland day, when the latter age grade drops a year next season.
“Minor will be an under-17 competition. Is it any longer acceptable or correct that lads will be playing in an All-Ireland minor final in front of 83,000 people when under-17 in the GAA player pathway is firmly in the youth category?
“I think the situation should be interrogated: is this best practice to have 17-year olds playing in an All-Ireland final and getting an All-Ireland medal – and a lot of them would be only 16. Is there a more appropriate grade that should be played with the MacCarthy Cup final?
“These are personal views of mine but I would like to see an All-Ireland weekend where you’d have the Rackard and Meagher finals played on a Saturday and on the Sunday have the All-Ireland senior final preceded by the Christy Ring. Then you’re giving recognition to adults who have worked hard and in many cases as hard as the tier ones.”
With the football facing three experimental years, he knows that getting the hurling part of it right should be done correctly rather than quickly.
“There will no doubt though be a clamour from people because they realise there is a disparity between the number of high-profile football games and the hurling but we won’t be responding to knee-jerk solutions. This is complicated and if it wasn’t it would have been solved a long time ago.”