By John Fogarty
GAA director general Páraic Duffy and president Aogán Farrell are confident the prospect of home games will ensure Waterford make Walsh Park a viable venue for Munster championship hurling in the coming years.
Farrell made the comment after Saturday’s Special Congress decision to introduce a provincial round-robin system on a three-year trial basis from 2018, which will see five teams in Leinster (Dublin, Galway, Kilkenny, Offaly, Wexford) and Munster (Clare, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford) all play four games, two of which will be at home.
The top two teams in each province will contest the finals with the winners, as is the case now, progressing to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
The runners-up will go into the quarter-finals where they will face the winners of the preliminary quarter-finals involving the third-placed provincial teams and the finalists from the tier two group comprising Antrim, Carlow Kerry, Laois, Meath and Westmeath.
Should Kerry win that tier, they will face off against the lowest finishers in the Munster round-robin group for a place in the following year’s provincial championship.
However, in the event any one of the other five triumph in the competition, they will replace the fifth team in Leinster.
In the debate about the motion, Waterford chairman Paddy Joe Ryan was vehemently opposed to the structure, claiming it would be “one of the worst decisions in GAA history”. However, Ryan later admitted they hadn’t paid much attention to the other three motions put forward by Cork (Super 8 hurling), Tipperary (losers group), and Dublin (the return of the four All-Ireland quarter-finals).
Duffy said Croke Park will work with Waterford to get Walsh Park right.
“I think one of the great things about this is they’ll want to host home games so that will put a little bit of pressure on them. Cusack Park is well up to speed now. There is work to be done on Waterford, we know that and Waterford know that and I’m sure this will give an impetus to having the necessary work done.”
Waterford hasn’t hosted a Munster SHC game since 2003 when they faced Kerry but Farrell remarked: “We saw it a few years ago in Armagh, they lost the opportunity to host a home game and they very quickly renovated their pitch. It gave them the impetus to go on and renovate their ground and we’ve seen it elsewhere as well.”
Dual counties believe the new proposal on top of the Super 8 will make it even more difficult for them to arrange club games but Farrell noted that, next year, there will be more weekends free for clubs than ever before. While Duffy added: “If counties look at this honestly — if you look at it from May 1 until the first teams are out of the championship, how many club championship games are actually played? How many games in Dublin or in Mayo or Galway hurling are played during the summer? I’d say the number of club championship games played is very few.
“Now, they can start their championship if they want to (in April), they’ll have a four or five-week gap and they’ll be finished an awful lot earlier. I don’t see how that’s a problem — I see that as a positive opportunity. I think counties will embrace that.”
The second tier, which could again be called the Christy Ring Cup with a new name being assigned to a lower tier championship, will also work on a round-robin format with a final and feature promotion and relegation along with the two immediate tiers below.
The new Liam MacCarthy Cup will feature 29 games — 11 in both Leinster and Munster, two preliminary quarter-finals, two quarter-finals, two semi-finals and final. That’s seven more than this year’s All-Ireland SHC proper (excluding the provincial qualifying group).
Meanwhile, Galway and Ulster teams, as determined by the Leinster and Ulster Councils, will compete in the Leinster U21 championship next year. Following a Cork amendment, there will be All-Ireland semi-finals between the provincial winners and the opposing province’s runners-up. Ulster teams will also enter the Leinster minor championship from 2018 with Galway going into a group with the Leinster and Munster runners-up, the top two progressing to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Remarked Farrell: “If there is such a place as limbo, they (Galway) were in it. Now this has brought a lot of certainty to them.”
Duffy confirmed the All-Ireland SHC final will take place on August 19 next year. The football decider is likely to happen on September 2 as Croke Park is set to accommodate part of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland next year on the weekend of August 26.
The Allianz Leagues are in line to finish by the first weekend in April with the championship commencing at the start of May.
The new hurling structure will mean there will be only a live televised football championship draw on RTÉ on October 19. The master fixtures calendar for 2018 is set to be released at the end of November. The provinces will decide the draw for the round-robin games — each team will have one break weekend.
Meanwhile the Club Players Association (CPA) are scheduled to meet with the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) on October 10. They will officially comment when the 2018 masters fixtures plan is released but reacting to Saturday’s decisions CPA chairman Micheál Briody said: “The CCCC have now got what they wanted with the Super 8 in football and now the hurling proposals so we know there can be no excuses for them not to deliver a fixed meaningful schedule of games for club players. To do this they must allocate designated club periods in the calendar and govern county boards better. From the meetings we have had with Croke Park, we know they are aware of this requirement.”
Also, there will be additional periods of extra-time (five minutes per half) in all the All-Ireland football qualifiers, knockout games in the Allianz League and provincial club championship games if the teams are still level after the usual 10-minute halves. If the teams are still level the result will then be determined by a free-taking competition. Should a provincial final replay end in a draw after the regular extra-time, there will be two additional periods of five minutes. The measures have been brought in to ensure more games are finished on the day.
A motion that underage age grades at club level be altered from Under 12, 14, 16 and 18 to U11, 13, 15 and 17 was withdrawn for more discussion ahead of next February’s Annual Congress. A call for British club senior, intermediate, and junior champions to enter the provincial championships in Ireland instead of their existing qualification through to All-Ireland quarter-finals was also deferred.
This story first appeared in today's Irish Examiner.