Last Saturday up in Croke Park a small group of men were entrusted to make a massively important decision about the future of the game of hurling.
They were faced with two choices.
The first option would represent a bold new departure. The championship would be run off in a Champions League format, starting in early May, with both the Leinster and Munster championships operating on a round-robin basis. Each county would be guaranteed two home and two away games in their own province before the competition entered its playoff phase. You’d still have your Munster final, the clubs would be guaranteed at least one Sunday to themselves every summer month, while at inter-county level there’d be more high-profile games, thus raising the profile of the game itself.
The second option was for the status quo to remain, except to run off a few extra games between Laois, Westmeath, Carlow, Antrim and London.
You might have heard that last Saturday Central Council overwhelmingly went with the second option to champion at Congress.
Chances are you never even heard of the first.
Rarely has such an important GAA debate been less debated. That is a shame, bordering on a scandal.
Tommy Lanigan and his Hurling Development Work Group were commissioned by president Liam O’Neill to come up with proposals that would be for the betterment of the game they love. It was both an honour and a challenge they took seriously. Yet it was as if the world was oblivious to their ideas and efforts.
There was no press conference, no endorsement from O’Neill the way he has supported Eugene McGee’s FRC or Sean Kelly supported the old Hurling Development Committee of Griffin, Loughnane and English back in 2004. Once the powerful Central Competition Control Committee released its conservative tweaks to the hurling league and championship last November, the work of Lanigan & Co was effectively railroaded.
Even the GAA media didn’t seem to want to know. Instead of calling players and managers for their views on such a radical — though logical — blueprint for hurling, it was more concerned by more trivial issues like how many backroom members can now be on a sideline. The GPA were nowhere to be heard either.
The problem for Lanigan’s work group was that it lacked sufficient profile and clout. Whereas FRC chairman Eugene McGee is a household name with seemingly limitless access to the airwaves, no one knows what Lanigan looks or sounds like or even what he does (For the record, he is a Kilkenny hurling man, chairman of James Stephens). The two best-known members of the group would be John Fenton and John Meyler yet neither enjoys the currency heavyweights like Loughnane and Griffin did while campaigning for more games in 2004.
Last summer I interviewed Cork’s Tom Kenny and we discussed a dilemma for hurling men such as him. In June he had played in front of 31,000 in a Munster championship semi-final against Tipperary. Páirc Uí Chaoimh mightn’t have been packed like the old do-or-die days but there was still a real big match-day vibe about it. Kenny said he would love to play at least six or seven championship games every summer, best provided by a league-based format, but he was mindful too that would probably then dilute the crowd and atmosphere you’d have at games like that Cork-Tipp one by the Lee. Which was the best way forward? He wasn’t sure but he felt it was a debate that hurling needed.
The status quo doesn’t offer teams enough games to measure their development. Clare undergo all that savage training under Davy, then lose narrowly in Munster, and then have to play Dublin and Limerick in just seven days. Dublin had only two meaningful games last summer, Clare three, yet were they that much worse really than Cork who would reach an All-Ireland semi-final? The status quo is also outdated. To illustrate the point, let us recall a scene from the 1999 film Any Given Sunday. (Just when we haven’t used a line from that film in years, the closure of HMV and the close-mindedness of the CCCC force us to pull Al back out.) Pacino, playing the coach Tony D’Amato, is on a plane flight trying with some difficulty to connect with the team’s rebellious quarterback Willie Beamon, played by Jamie Foxx. Beamon has his headphones on when D’Amato tries to break some ice by volunteering to make a tape of his own jazz favourites. Beamon says he doesn’t go “much for that old stuff” and taps his player. “I got CDs.”
The old do-or-die championship was vinyl. The current championship format is like an old cassette tape; at best, a CD. Central Council might think they’re down with this generation of player and supporter because they’ve progressed beyond vinyl but all the while bemused players listen to their iPods and want more summer games.
Hurling needs more summer games. Scrap the league if needs be but hurling needs to revamp its format otherwise it could soon seem as out of time as HMV.
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