Whether you are a hurler, hurling fan, hurling coach, hurling administrator, whatever aspect of the hurling world you exist in, you tend to be in a minority. At the same time, you believe yours is the greatest game and are never too slow in expressing that view. The smaller the hurling stronghold you inhabit, the more ardent you are in your commitment to the game.
You are proud to be a hurling person despite often living in the shadows of Gaelic football. The latter, most particularly the dominance of Dublin and the debate around a tiered championship, is gaining a lot of column inches and air time at the minute. Sometimes it feels that the hurling has to be beyond brilliant, as per 2018, for it to be as prominent on a day to day basis as football.
For me, hurling folk, particularly in lower tier counties, tend to be a little less vocal than their football counterparts, there is a get-on-with-it attitude, a siege mentality almost of fighting against the odds to keep the great game alive.
So, it was a nice surprise to see Carlow hurler Paul Coady articulate some informed opinion on the experience of Carlow in the hurling championship in 2019. Paul’s comments at the culmination of the McDonagh, Ring, Rackard, and Meagher competitions provides a useful prompt to consider the current state of hurling beyond the top tier.
The Hurling 2020 report was launched in 2015 and is now almost at the end of its life-cycle. It had three overarching themes; to ‘protect the game’ in traditionally strong counties, ‘grow the game’ in another batch and finally to ‘develop the game’ in lower tier counties.
The three aspects align themselves neatly with the current championship groupings. The senior championship replicates the ‘protect the game’ group, the Joe McDonagh and Christy Ring the ‘grow the game’ cohort, with development counties residing for the most part in the Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher competitions.
Carlow, who have spent the 2019 season in the top tier and the triumvirate of Roscommon, London, and Wicklow have all progressed from their allocation in 2015, which at a superficial level at least, doesn’t speak of significant regression but also not of any major progress in the intervening years.
Hurling 2020 had 15 proposals and while a thorough review is likely ahead, many of the recommendations seem to have been realised. A Director of Hurling was appointed; the penalty is now one on one; the advantage rule is in situ; and the final of the second tier competition is to be played before a senior provincial final.
Only one proposal really touched on how to actually ‘protect, grow, or develop’ the game in relevant counties. This particular proposal called for an external consultancy agency to develop a best practice template to build up hurling within each county.
To the best of my knowledge, this recommendation, which was in some ways the most important in terms of a move towards a new hurling landscape, was not realised. Disappointing for counties falling into the ‘grow’ and ‘develop’ categories, and so the 150-year-old problem remains; how do you promote hurling beyond the traditional strongholds?
Currently, hurling exists in a tiered format, and has done so since 2005. There have been two winners of the Joe McDonagh, eight of the Christy Ring, nine of the Nicky Rackard, and eight of the Lory Meagher, while over the same timespan in the Liam MacCarthy, there have been six different winning counties; 26 different winners overall. These competition structures appear to work well, giving counties an opportunity to compete at their level and a context to facilitate ambition and progress.
One issue has cropped up; Hurling 2020 removed promotion/relegation play-offs between tiers, which perhaps needs to be reconsidered. Paul Coady noted that Carlow, in 2019, were set up to return to the Joe McDonagh with relegation attached to the Leinster Championship only, and subsequently are destined for at best, a yo-yo up and down between the first and second tier in the years ahead. Easy to see how disillusionment would set in and offset the potential for sustained progress for Carlow hurling.
And just to consider Carlow for a second… Paul has pointed out that the Carlow senior hurling panel recruits from a pool of less than 300 players, with Clare selecting from almost 900, Galway 1200, and Cork over 3,000.
Growing, and then improving the playing population is the single biggest issue for counties trying to succeed in hurling. To support this, there is a games promotion network with Games Managers, Games Development Administrators (GDAs), and Games Promotion Officers (GPOs) working to promote participation in football and hurling.
Counties have very different set-ups; Cork appear to have seven full-time GDAs and Galway one, with some GPOs. In both counties the game is strong and will likely remain so with careful management due to strong club structures.
Carlow currently have a GDA (and a half) for hurling, Mayo have one. Sligo had their own GPO for hurling but when vacated, the position was expanded to Sligo-Leitrim; hugely disappointing particularly in light of the successes of both counties in the Rackard and Meagher competitions.
Let’s revert then to the Hurling 2020 proposal around developing a template for best practice for hurling promotion. In 2006, Dublin hurlers were on a par with Westmeath, Laois, and Meath. In the intervening period, Dublin received over €17 million in funding, which contributed to significant investment in games promotion (59 games promotion/development officers) and a 98% growth in hurling, according to John Costello, Dublin CEO.
Minor, U21, and senior Leinster titles have followed along with a league title, and Dublin are now a genuine contender for the ultimate accolade. Dublin are the only county to really break through to the traditional top tier; so some content for the best practice template is surely to be found in the Dublin experience.
A second consideration is funding for current county squads. The Hurling Development Fund (HDF) Scheme commenced in 2015 to run for five years with €40,000 allocated to designated counties (Antrim, Offaly, Westmeath, Laois, and Carlow); €30,000 for senior teams and €10,000 for minor and U21 groups.
Leinster GAA carried out an evaluation of their counties after year 1. It highlighted several concerns:
In the interim period, Leinster are confident improvements have been made but a comment from Neil McManus that confirmed Antrim senior hurling had no S&C coach in 2019 is less reassuring. The evaluation produced strong proposals and overall provides rich content for best practice for hurling promotion.
In addition, the Hurling Development Fund gives a context for a roll out of enhanced funding to all development counties in hurling. The Sligo hurling manager noted, after their success last week, that they can develop if they get support and funding; a good plan may herald some of the required investment.
Indeed, the seeds for Sligo’s win was likely found in a previous call for support that was informed and rational, and led to the development of the Celtic Challenge, a super initiative run by the GAA to promote hurling in all counties. There is a lot more to cover in developing hurling in lower tiers, to make the most of the competition structures that exist.
Games and players could be promoted more, and visibility enhanced through streaming of games. It irks that the four lower tier competitions are completed before July. In many counties, hurling is an afterthought for county boards — and the public.
I wonder too how widely respected and acknowledged hurling people in lower tier counties feel. It strikes me that there is a lot that is unsaid. Paul Coady is a solid, committed, passionate, smart guy, and a voice for Mount Leinster Rangers hurling, Carlow hurling, and just hurling really. Paul’s voice would be all the stronger with input from Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, Longford, Louth etc….Hurling 2030 needs it and must be grounded in it.