Too few top hurling counties for All-Ireland round-robin to be viable
Conor Hayes says new proposals worthwhile but separate club/county windows needed
Kilkenny’s Walter Walsh tussles with Tipperary’s Séamus Kennedy during last year’s All-Ireland final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The proposals for an expanded hurling championship in 2018 had little choice but to concentrate on the provinces because of the small number of competing counties, according to former Galway manager and All-Ireland winning captain Conor Hayes.
Whereas he feels the suggested reforms, which will go before Central Council in June with the likelihood of a special congress to follow next autumn, are worth trialling and positive from a Galway perspective he is sceptical about the impact on club fixtures.
Details of the changes, revealed in the weekend’s Sunday Times, were confirmed by GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail on RTÉ radio’s Sunday Sport. He said concerns that the football blueprint agreed at last February’s annual congress for a round-robin in the last eight of the championship would overshadow hurling were shared and a response had been drafted.
This would involve not additional matches at the All-Ireland stage of the championship but at the provincial with a home-and-away, five-county round robin in both Munster and Leinster. The latter would also address the issue of Galway’s demand for home matches, which they haven’t been granted in the eight years of their involvement in Leinster.
“The thing from the Galway point of view,” said Hayes “is that they get a couple of home games, which is great. The difficulty for hurling, as I’ve always said, is that you don’t have enough teams to go around and the danger of playing a round-robin at the later stages of the competition is that most of the teams will have played each other earlier in the championship.
“It’s easier for the football because you can get a surprise county coming out of the pack from year to year – Fermanagh or Sligo – who will get into a quarter-final and that changes things around a bit but in the hurling you’re probably going to end up with the same five or six teams.
“But the system is opening up a bit and it’s hard to see how long more the provincial championships can be kept in place.”
Galway and Hayes have long been critics of the provincial system and he was an early advocate of the county being admitted to the Leinster championship, which duly happened in 2009 since when it has hosted counties from all three other provinces – Antrim and Kerry joining Galway at different stages.
The contention over Galway playing some home championship matches reached a peak at congress when the county brought a motion looking to secure that right as well as the participation of the county’s minor and under-21 teams in the same province. The proposal was withdrawn pending talks, which are close to resolution if the round-robin idea gets the green light and a satisfactory accommodation can be found in relation to the underage issues.
Should that go ahead the additional fixtures are expected to be accommodated within a schedule like the draft calendar that accompanied the football proposals, a much contracted season with provincial finals played earlier and the All-Ireland finals brought back into August. The rationale was that even if additional county fixtures were to be drawn up, the time-frame would have to reduce to give more weekends back to the clubs.
Hayes questions whether the putative new fixtures’ schedule can accommodate that but also whether clubs actually want to play important matches during the summer when players are on holidays or abroad.
“You have to play a certain amount of club games without your club players during the summer. Have a special competition but that window should be for county teams. I can’t see the clubs going for that because there tends to be an attitude of, ‘we won’t play anything until we have everyone, the lads back from America, the lads with the broken arm, the county players back and so on – and we won’t play until they are’.
“Clubs have to ask themselves, what do they really want? Do we really want to be playing over the summer when lads are away or do we just play the few matches in May and into June and some intermittent stuff after that?”
Hayes welcomes the move towards bringing the county into the underage Leinster championships – which are still under discussion.
“Look for instance at the under-21 for Galway). They’re training all year and minding fellas and putting off club games to play maybe just one game in the year, which is crazy. Training teams at those age groups, you’re as well off knowing how competitive the team is in June as waiting until August.”
For club fixtures in general he favours the system that has evolved in rugby with windows for matches and county players unavailable.
“The IRFU instruct the provinces who plays when, where and what happens. If we could block it off and say, ‘here’s four or five weeks for club matches and then go off with the county and depending on the success, we’ll see you back whenever’ and then have another window for another blast of club fixtures.
“I think the round robin will work but might it create other issues as well as solving some? I’m not being critical of it because I think it’s a good idea. I think the GAA is trying to keep as many counties involved for as long as it can.”