No quarter given as GAA weighs up hurling league options
Current format has been successful in drawing the crowds but there are misgivings
Clare’s Tony Kelly attempts a point against Waterford during last year’s NHL final at Semple Stadium. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.
Last weekend, on cue the complaints started. Limerick manager John Kiely criticised the GAA for not making clear whether the format for next year’s hurling league would change.
Croke Park pointed out that change had never been on the agenda, as the current structure had been stated in 2015 to be in operation for the following three years.
Feargal McGill, the GAA director of games administration, also stated there would be no changes to format unless announced a year in advance. Maybe it would be hard to blame Kiely for wondering, as back in 2011 when the eight-team divisional format changed it happened overnight, leaving a Limerick side that had won promotion to the top flight re-categorised as Division 1B, a status they’ve been unable to shake since.
It was because of the unhappiness over that move that the GAA decided to proceed cautiously when introducing changes in future. Teams would have a full season to adapt to whatever new structure is introduced.
McGill is anxious to clarify however that the absence of change next season doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.
“I know that for a great deal of time recently the focus has been sharply on the football championship but since then there has been a lot of reflection on the hurling league and championship structure and there will be proposals in time for next year so that the future from 2019 on can be considered.”
There is nothing novel in complaints about the current league format. Throughout the hectic season reservations are expressed about the cut-throat nature of the competition in which six usually evenly-matched teams battle over a regulation season that lasts just seven weeks, followed by quarter-finals and relegation play-offs.
There have inevitably been harder cases than you’d find at a nuclear waste disposal facility. Last year Cork lost all their matches but in the relegation play-off beat a Galway team that just missed the quarter-finals on scoring difference.
Waterford manager Derek McGrath has consistently cited the clash of scheduling with the third-level Fitzgibbon Cup as well as the difficulty of trialling new players in such a pressurised environment.
These views are also held by Kilkenny chair Ned Quinn, a former head of the national hurling development committee. “Is it two championships we want or a league and a championship?” he asks. “At the moment what we have is two championships.
“We’ve never made any secret about preferring extra games because it gives you the chance to do things in the league that you can’t do at the moment. I know the argument is that the next division will be top heavy with one or two teams ahead of the others.”
The weekend of the hurling league quarter-finals unfailingly brings with it a focus on the format, now in its fourth year, which throws together the top-four teams in Division 1A and 1B as well as on the six-team divisions.
Every year the sight of the fourth team in Division 1B lining up while the bottom two in Division 1A play out a relegation playoff causes furrowed brows. This is because the top three in the lower division are a caste unto themselves and the team that comes fourth has generally just survived the relegation battle.
The original view of the format was that the “two sixes” would provide a competitive top tier and a second tier in which some top counties would compete with developing sides, who would benefit from the playing more highly-ranked counties.
“The whole point of the format was to make the league competitive,” says McGill. “Back when we were charged with addressing that problem was the last time the top divisions were organised on a ‘two eights’ basis. It was because of the lop-sided nature of the matches that we asked to do something about it.
“So it’s designed to be competitive and we would make no apologies about that and I honestly don’t get the argument that it’s become ‘too competitive’. Surely competitiveness is the point of any sporting contest.”
Few better understand the perspective of the developing counties in Division 1B than Éamonn Kelly, who has in the recent past managed all three of them, Kerry, Offaly and this season, Laois. He is dubious about the benefits of the quarter-final system.
“It’s crazy in the two-by-six format that you have four teams from both divisions (1A and 1B). Offaly are there on scoring difference and fair play to them but when I was with them last year we got to the quarter-final as well and got a big beating from Kilkenny, which doesn’t do you any good.
“You can’t give out about the big teams either – they’ve got competitive panels and aren’t going to ease up.”
The big beating – 24 points last year – can be an occupational hazard when the fourth-placed 1B team takes on the table toppers in Division 1A.
Yet the format has proved undeniably successful from a public point of view. The competitive pressures followed the knock-out stages, from which the top counties in the lower division have emerged to win the last two league titles, brings in the crowds.
In the first season of the format league revenues jumped from €921,711 to €1,624,898, an increase of 76 per cent and last year were even higher at €1,9 million.
Despite this McGill says that the GAA is aware of the need for further review.
“I think it’s also important to point out that the decision to go ahead with this format for another year, as originally scheduled, doesn’t mean that we’re doing nothing or that we’re fully satisfied with structures as they are and we don’t want anyone to think that.