The GAA weekend that was: Does hurling league need a revamp?

All-Ireland glory days a distant memory for Offaly’s hurlers and Down’s footballers

Waterford manager Derek McGrath has questioned the current hurling league structure. Photograph: Inpho/Cathal Noonan

Waterford manager Derek McGrath has questioned the current hurling league structure. Photograph: Inpho/Cathal Noonan

 

Does hurling league need format change?

One of the objections registered against the proposed reform of the football championship, which goes before next week’s congress is that it would marginalise hurling by swamping the latter stages of the All-Ireland season with high-profile football matches.

In a way it’s simply a reflection of the greater number of competitive teams. Even with the current August equilibrium of two All-Ireland semi-finals for both football and hurling, the month still begins with what has increasingly become seen as the ‘real’ start of the championship, the football quarter-finals.

Hurling has an argument in this. The mere fact of its smaller competitive base would suggest that it - and not football - needs the additional fixtures of a round-robin format but maybe if football gets to trial the idea for three years, hurling can look at it, just as happened with the qualifiers in 2001 and ‘02.

In the same vein there is increasing focus on the leagues. The spring competitions have become of increasing importance in both games but within hurling there is a view that the six-team top division is no different from a blitz at this stage.

Waterford’s manager Derek McGrath was again trenchant on the subject in the wake of Sunday’s significant opening-day victory in Nowlan Park. His views are informed because he has managed in both Division One A and One B.

“We have gone past worrying about getting two points in the league or worrying about relegation,” he said. “We are just worried about improving and performance, to pick up two points along the way is just a bonus.

“To be honest, I am not fixated on relegation. My stance on the league is very clear, the league, the two sixes, should be changed. It gives those guys the opportunity not to play during the league and just concentrate on colleges and their studies.”

Interestingly he made exactly the same point a year ago, reflecting that for a manager attempting to develop a team and panel from a decent selection of young talent, Division One A was almost the wrong place to be.

“It sounds contradictory to say but it’s almost too serious. That’s my feeling on it.

“We’re in the same situation this week: quarter-finals of the Fitzgibbon and it looks like you’re reaching for excuses but I think if there was a two-tier top division with six teams in each it would give you more of an opportunity. I think we didn’t use a sub until 63 or 64 minutes. The contrast with last year is that we were able to blood fellas and bring them in whereas I don’t think this allows for that.”

As it happens, the same is the case this year and on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week the Fitzgibbon quarter-finals take place and there will be more than a dozen Waterford players involved with those eight colleges - a welcome change from the past and one that McGrath, as a Fitzgibbon winner with UCC well appreciates.

He has successfully dealt with the restrictions in the past and it was a battling first-day performance in a draw with Limerick two years ago that set the scene for Waterford's immediate return to One A in a season that culminated in winning the league title.

On the two opening weekends since then Waterford have beaten Kilkenny, at home last year and then away last Sunday.

There is however a counter-argument that with its easy progression to the quarter-finals (four of the six teams) and it double-lock on relegation (a play-off between the bottom two) the hurling league isn’t ultimately that cut-throat even if it invariably leads to a mid-table logjam for a number of teams.

Were the top flight to be extended, the knock-on effect on what has been under the format a very successfully competitive Division One B would be damaging and potentially could undermine the opportunity to improve, such as has been the case with Kerry.

Look on my works, ye Mighty………..

As the most visible symbol of the modern GAA, Croke Park was emerging from the rubble of the old stadium the All-Irelands of 1994 were played in front of the smallest final attendances in the stadium - 56,458 and 58,684, in the hurling and football - since the war years.

Winning those titles in front of the just constructed lower deck of the new Cusack Stand were the hurlers of Offaly and Down’s footballers. It’s not that they haven’t known a good day since - they reached finals most recently in 2000 and 2010 respectively - but it all looked a long way away on Monday morning.

On 5th April two years ago Down last won a league match when they defeated Laois in Newry to top Division Two and gain promotion. Since then they have lost 14 league and championship fixtures on the bounce, starting with the divisional final two years ago, continuing through a wipe-out campaign in Division One - culminating in the worst scoring difference in the entire league - and the first two fixtures of this season against Fermanagh and Clare.

Westmeath only last season completed the precipitous slump from Division One to Four in successive seasons but can lay claim to being the second-best county in Leinster in the past two years, reaching both provincial finals whereas Down haven’t won in the championship since June 2014.

The plight of Offaly’s hurlers has been more apparent for longer and even within the last year, defeats by Kerry in the league and Westmeath in championship have attested to their adjusted status in the game. Yet, equally it’s only last summer that the county went down to a relatively respectable (even that tells its own tale) 10-point loss against Galway in the Leinster semi-final.

That margin had amplified to 26 at the weekend when the Westerners, in an evident hurry to get out of Division One B as quickly as possible, scored a 6-23 to 1-12 victory in Tullamore.

One glum Offaly man said that whereas you could say they’d hit rock bottom, the problem is that there are new rock bottoms being reached on a regular basis.

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