Some of the debate on the proposed changes to the intercounty hurling championship has been ‘very reactive,’ according to Paudie O’Neill, chair of Croke Park’s hurling development committee and a former coach with Tipperary’s hurlers.
He was commenting in advance of Saturday’s GAA special congress, which will consider a number of motions to reform the championship – all of which propose an expanded fixtures schedule and the most prominent of which, coming from Central Council, advocates the limiting of the elite MacCarthy Cup to 10 counties albeit with relegation and promotion.
“I think there was a clamour for more matches although I’d like to qualify that as more meaningful matches,” said O’Neill.
“It was a reactive move after the agreement of the Super 8 in football. The flipside of that reaction was that because the hurling championship was very good and very exciting this year, people have been saying, ‘leave it as it is,’ which is another reaction – not a response.”
O’Neill believes strongly that the development of a more meaningful championship format would be of great assistance in the work to develop hurling around the country.
“The relevance to the development of hurling is that in reality we have people in hurling counties – and football but focus on hurling – who live in a delusional dreamland that they want to be competing in the MacCarthy Cup but look at this in an evidence-based manner and they may not have achieved anything at that level for years and years.
"At HDC we said we'd like to see a tier between the Christy Ring and MacCarthy Cups. What we asked was that the counties, Laois, Meath, Carlow, Westmeath, Antrim and Kerry play off in that tier but that the final be played at a major event such as an All-Ireland semi-final or preferably a final with a trophy. If you win that competition the following year you get to enter the MacCarthy Cup.
“The thinking here is that it is meritocratic. There is promotion and relegation and the winners have a year to get themselves up to speed and that comes on the back of a success.
“That’s more realistic in my mind than the desire to ‘have a crack at the big boys,’ which can end up in 25-point beatings. I understand on an emotional level the desire to take on the big guns but it doesn’t stack up. Playing yourself up a level based on performance in a meaningful competition makes sense.”
He accepts that the idea is contentious with a number of the affected counties opposed to the idea with an amendment down to allow the winners of Tier 2 to enter that season's MacCarthy Cup rather than wait for another year – in much the same way that under the status quo the Leinster preliminary group qualifiers progress into the Leinster championship. O'Neill says that this hasn't been successful.
“If they play four or five what will be tough championship matches they don’t have the strength in depth to withstand injuries or suspensions. Laois this year played Dublin in the championship and had lost three or four fellas.”
Many of the elite counties are similarly unimpressed. Munster for instance is expected to split 2-4 against the Central Council blueprint with Cork and Tipperary putting forward their own motions and in the event of their failing, have both decided to vote against as well as Clare and Waterford.
O’Neill points out though that there are other motions worthy of consideration even if the big-ticket items fail to secure the necessary 60 per cent.
“It may be difficult to get changes through but there are other things on the agenda like the under-21 championships and the removal of these farcical All-Ireland semi-finals where Derry got beaten by 52 points. Maybe it’s negative to take away a game but those games were not meaningful fixtures.”
Motion nine proposes that in future Ulster counties and Galway contest the Leinster championship and that All-Ireland semi-finals be abolished with the final to be decided between the Leinster and Munster winners.
Whereas he is uncertain about the outcome this weekend, he is confident that the evolutionary process won’t be derailed, regardless.
“Change doesn’t come easily but I think it will come.”