Hurling back door open for four more years

 

The hurling championship reforms have been adopted for a further four years. In a slightly surprising outcome, the GAA's special congress in Rosslare on Saturday voted for the four-year extension rather than, as expected, the two-year option.

This renews the system by which the successful semi-finalists in the Munster and Leinster championships progress to the All-Ireland stages, regardless of the results of the provincial finals. Considerably larger attendances, bigger television audiences and the increased revenue which has gone back into the game were all cited as reasons for maintaining the reformed system.

Only 10 delegates - including, ironically, those from All-Ireland champions Offaly, the prime beneficiaries of the reforms - voted in favour of reversion to the old system and the principle of the changes was accepted overwhelmingly despite occasional dissenting voices.

A Galway motion to have the quarter-final pairings decided by an open draw (as opposed to keeping the runners-up in Munster and Leinster apart) was also passed.

A complicated procedure was adopted to sift through the competing motions which recommended permanent adoption, a further experimental period of four years and one of two years. First, the principle of continuing the system was accepted; then the principle of further experiment rather than permanency; and finally four years was preferred to two.

Two of the most vehement arguments in favour of the reforms came from past presidents Jack Boothman, during whose term of office the experiments were introduced, and Pat Fanning of Waterford. Another former president, Con Murphy of Cork, who opposed the reforms on their introduction two years ago, remained unconvinced. He also warned that live television could mean the GAA becoming "an association of spectators".

"In London (Congress 1996), you made a decision in the dark," said Boothman. "Now the evidence is there. Twelve live hurling games on TV have brought entertainment into homes who had never watched hurling before. The decision has been made by the people of Ireland, get up and vote it in."

Offaly's Andy Gallagher made the keynote speech against the motions. He pointed out that the rise in attendances this year was misleading because the Munster final had gone to a replay and the Offaly-Clare All-Ireland semi-final required three matches to sort itself out. If these extra matches were excepted, he argued, total attendances had actually declined.

He went on to draw attention to poor presentation at a special minor final between Carlow and Westmeath and the lack of interest in the Kilkenny-Galway intermediate semi-final which had been played in Offaly.

"It has had an enormous effect on club hurling with championships not yet completed," he continued, "and if our clubs are affected, what effect will that have on Offaly hurling. What has it done for Kerry, Carlow, Roscommon, Down, Antrim, Dublin, Laois and Meath?"

Both Frank Murphy of Cork, who chaired the committee which had introduced the reforms, and Pat Fanning answered Gallagher by pointing out that it was unfair to saddle the reforms with blame for all the ills of hurling.

Murphy said that the twin objectives of the reforms had been the promotion of hurling and the raising of the profile of major games. "There was little use in RTE providing us with live TV if we didn't have the matches to give them."

Speakers from Mayo, Galway, Limerick, Clare, Waterford, Kilkenny, Antrim, Down, Cavan and Munster Council chairman Sean Kelly all spoke in favour. The motion for a four-year extension to the proposals was carried overwhelmingly.

Concerns about the dominance of stronger counties in the revived intermediate championship were raised. A number of counties are graded intermediate and allowed enter their best team but bigger counties are allowed enter teams composed of junior players and these have proved successful in the last two years.

Wicklow and Westmeath both proposed motions to address this situation. Westmeath's provided for a competition along the lines of the old All-Ireland B championship for counties graded intermediate with the winners entering the intermediate championship proper at the semi-final stage.

This was passed and Wicklow's was withdrawn. This had proposed a competition - again like the old B championship - be organised and conducted parallel to the intermediate championship without affecting counties' rights to participate in that championship.

Also on the agenda was a set of motions to implement the comprehensive report on the role of provincial councils by the policy and planning committee chaired by Monaghan's Sean McCague.

The proposals to streamline the functions of the councils and bring them into line with provisions of the congress review committee of last year and to improve communications and the dissemination of information were accepted.

It was also announced at the weekend congress that New York will for the first time contest the senior football championship. The proposal received the go-ahead from Central Council and Connacht Council secretary John Prenty confirmed that the province had agreed to allow New York to enter the Connacht championship at a preliminary round stage. New York won the International Competition organised by the GAA in Dublin in September.