John Allen: League needs restructure to develop ‘other’ counties

Second-tier teams likely to be left further behind unless radical changes are implemented

Tipperary and Kilkenny fans at Croke Park for All-Ireland hurling finals is an all too familiar sight. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

Tipperary and Kilkenny fans at Croke Park for All-Ireland hurling finals is an all too familiar sight. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times.

 

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is with us again. Two counties left standing in the elite hurling competition, both with life membership. And, lest you’ve forgotten, they are the same counties that played each other in 2009, ’10, ’11 and twice in ’14.

So yes, the status quo is maintained, God in his heaven and the hurling world very much at a standstill. So again this year the question needs to be asked: “How do the GAA envisage that the development of enough senior intercounty, high-quality hurling teams will be achieved?”

When contemplating the debate that’s needed, that delightful poem we did with the Christian Brothers in the North Mon Cork many moons ago comes to mind. Lines from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard might have significance: Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air. I suppose this pleading for a better system will probably be wasted in a desert air of sorts.

How will any of the counties outside of the top six/eight develop teams that can hope to challenge the Liam MacCarthy Cup cartel? That cartel really is a monopoly at present. Less than a handful of counties have any chance of breaking that stranglehold. Yes we have a highish standard being played by the top teams. But most of the counties outside of Division 1A of the league can’t expect to realistically challenge because, for one, they seldom get to play any of the better teams. The top-three counties have 96 titles between them with Kilkenny at the top with 36 of those.

Documented failures

Brian Cody

Tipperary, too, have had their lean times but are competitive almost every year and are very much to the forefront again this season. Cork, the biggest county, has a rich tradition and history but are at a bit of a crossroads. They have the playing population to be consistently competitive and with a bit of re-organisation and re-prioritising could be in a position to get back to the metaphorical top table again. The mushroom theory has reached its sell by date. I’m well aware that getting back to the top might present many challenges and won’t happen without much change from within.

Clare, Waterford, and Dublin complete the Division 1A league sextet for 2017. At least they have a minimum of five competitive league games prior to championship.

The structure of this present league, a league where in 1A there is no room for error, doesn’t give followers enough games, doesn’t give managers much scope for experimentation and is totally stacked in favour of the top six.

Galway and Limerick have promised intermittently. All the rest, however, are out in the cold. As it stands too many counties are being marginalised. A restructured Allianz Hurling League, with two sections of six (a mixture from the current 1A and 1B) would give a chance to a greater number of teams to play against better opposition.

As the structure stands counties like Wexford, Offaly, Laois, Carlow, Westmeath and Antrim have very little chance of winning any major trophy.

As things stand the Kilkenny or Tipperary will win the Liam MacCarthy. Clare ( a fairy consistent division one team) won the league. Waterford (1A) have hauled themselves back into contention as a championship contender and of course were league champions last year.

Galway are Galway . Maybe their under-21s will help to keep the flame burning. Dublin have the player base but have issues of their own which prevent them from making the step up . The greatest of those is probably the dual-player conundrum.

Wexford have shown encouraging flashes over the last few years but it’s hard to envisage them beating Kilkenny over the next decade. Limerick have quite a number of top players and the potential to reach that much craved “promised land” . But it’s been over 40 years .

But what about the rest? Surely more meaningful games should be the priority.

This year’s championship has not had enough high-quality entertaining games and yes I realise from the teams’ and managements’ perspective it’s all about winning. Entertainment is just an add on. But maybe that statement about winning is too general. I’m fairly sure Kerry were fairly happy this year that they got a chance to play at provincial level. Manager Ciarán Carey knows a thing or two about competing and winning and he and the Kerry hurling followers have to be happy that progress is being made. Carlow are doing their best to be competitive. Westmeath have a good under-21 team.They might get a return from that group of players. Offaly have fallen from grace and might struggle to be competitive (yes a relative term) in the medium term.

Huge sacrifices

Something needs to be done though to give those “other” counties some kind of a chance of progressing to a higher level which will in turn help to grow the game and ensure it survives to thrill future generations.

Hurling, certainly not a game that was “born to blush unseen” deserves conservation but also promotion and development .

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