Hurling revamp loses some of its colour in the wash


THE weekend's football championship draws attracted much more attention, but Saturday's Central Council meeting at Croke Park saw the final details put into place for what will be the most radically innovative hurling season in history.

Given the immense amount of work done to bring the Hurling Development Committee's work to fruition, it might seem like nit picking to mention a couple of matters that went astray but it was a pity that the overall impact of the HDC's excellent proposals were a little diluted.

The first issue is the number of matches in the National Hurling League, to be played next March. It has now been decided that three rounds will take place that month - which is a pity. Among the major thrusts of the reform package was the need to increase the number of competitive hurling matches available to counties in good weather.

Apart from making the game more palatable to the public at large, this would allow teams who rarely survive long into the championship to gain much needed practice on hard, fast ground.

By opting to play three - rather than the originally envisaged two - fixtures in March, the Games Administration Committee have undermined, albeit marginally, the purpose of the reforms.

March is a treacherous month in terms of weather, and throwing an extra match into its unreliable ambit is unhelpful. It's also the last month affected by club distract ion, with the All Ireland finals on St Patrick's Day another reason for having fewer rather than more matches during the month.

Although the three Sunday issue was raised at Central Council last weekend, it didn't excite any great debate for the simple reason that the proposed calendar had been drawn up last June without the HDC tumbling to the significance of it, although the committee was involved in the ad hoc body which drew up the proposals which the GAC finalised last Saturday.

Attempts to revise the March proposals were always going to be opposed by those who had been hostile to the reforms all along which is what happened when the matter came up last Saturday.

Joe McDonagh, President Elect of the GAA, was chairman of the ad hoc body looking into how fixtures for the new hurling season would be organised. It met on June 7th and 8th to discuss a two year schedule and represented the GAC, the HDC and the Gradings Committee (set up to decide which counties would be eligible for the new Intermediate and Junior championships).

"I still can't recall clearly how three Sundays (in March) went in there," says McDonagh, "but there was an awful lot of detail flying backwards and forwards, dividing out Sundays. The specific reason why though, is unclear to me.

Under the terms of the HDC's original proposal, only two Sundays would be played in March and that remains the proposal for the second year of the experiment. Details of the 1997-98 season have yet to be fully worked out by the GAC and will he presented to Central Council on December 7th - in rough keeping with the Central Council decision to prepare a programme for two years of fixtures.

There seems no doubt that the HDC took its eye off the ball for once in relation to next March's fixtures and if the difference between having one round of the League in March rather than May isn't exactly catastrophic, it's an irritation that could probably have been avoided - given that 1998 follows the original proposal.

The second argument that appears lost is the highly desirable idea of making the All Ireland quarter final draw after the provincial finals have been decided.

Although this will be the case in 1997, the procedure to be followed a year later is simply to reverse whatever draw comes out of the hat next July. This routine procedure represents an opportunity lost.

One of the loudest arguments against the re admission to the All Ireland championship of the beaten Leinster and Munster finalists at a quarter final stage where they face the Connacht or Ulster champions - has been that the prospect of playing the northern representatives will render the Munster and Leinster finalists indifferent to winning their provincial title.

The purpose of making the draw after the relevant provincial finals is to leave it unclear whether the losers will be playing the Ulster champions or have to face the less comforting prospect of taking on Galway (whatever about Roscommon).

Pre determining the matter for 1998 undermines this purpose, for reasons that are at best misplaced.

The argument runs that to hide the identity of likely quarter final opponents is really a way of obscuring which provides beaten finalists are going to get Ulster - and this is demeaning to hurling in the North.

Of course, this is nonsense. What demeans Ulster hurling is the reason why it's necessary to try and obscure their quarter final opponents - not the actual obscuring. A recent track record of massive and defeats in uncompetitive All Ireland semi finals is the reason why the delayed draw is so desirable.

Anyone interested in hurling's long term future will hope that, freed from the oppressive atmosphere of a full Croke Park, Ulster champions will make an impact at the new quarter final stage and as soon as that happens, all imagined offence can he forgotten.

In the meantime, Central Council should look again at the idea of making the draw for the All Ireland quarter finals annually after the conclusion of the provincial finals.

Otherwise, the stage is set for a hugely interesting couple of years in hurling. The new League and senior championship proposals will improve the game by allowing better playing conditions to everyone and introducing such innovations as important Saturday matches.

Furthermore, the Intermediate and Junior grades, which are also taking shape, will allow decent, realistic championship activity for counties whose previous competitive opportunities were largely confined to gouging the sliotar out of quagmires in remote locations.