JOHN FOGARTY: Little fair in 100-day inter-county hurling war

If you were going to market the forthcoming All-Ireland senior hurling championship, you might herald it as ‘The 100-day War’. 

That’s how long it will take to complete the Liam MacCarthy Cup this year, from May 12’s Leinster SHC opener between Offaly and Galway to August 19’s All-Ireland final. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the run is just six days shorter than last year when it finished in September.

Now, that’s excluding the 2017 Leinster qualifier series but then it also ignores the new Joe McDonagh Cup, which feeds into the Liam MacCarthy Cup competition at the preliminary All-Ireland quarter-final stages. 

They effectively rule each other out so the comparison is justified.

Quality-wise, there should be a vast improvement although the schedule, barring replays, promises 29 games, four less than 10 years ago which incorporated the Ulster SHC. Then again, in both 1978 and ’88, the All-Ireland SHC comprised 14 matches, a figure which increased to 23 in 1998 because of the Ulster SHC, replays, the second year of the backdoor for provincial runners-ups, and that infamous Offaly-Clare All-Ireland semi-final replay saga.

Never before have the provincial championships been so compact or packed with the level of competition particularly in Munster.

It will be manic and there will be panic but the competitions could be utterly absorbing. However, there are anomalies. 

As much as the likes of Limerick and Offaly are guaranteed twice as many championship outings as they had last year, two teams’ seasons will be over in Leinster by June 9 at the latest and another two in Munster a maximum of a week later unless Kerry win the Joe McDonagh Cup, which would prompt a play-off with the bottom team in Munster.

The summer of Offaly, who complete their Leinster campaign on June 3 against Dublin, might be over and done in 23 days. That contrasts with the two preliminary quarter-finalists from the Joe McDonagh Cup who set out on the first of six matches in their competitions this coming weekend and will play until at least July 7 or 8.

Creating an avenue from the Joe McDonagh to the Liam MacCarthy Cup was a motion backed at October’s Special Congress and it was one that had hurling development in mind, but giving the second tier counties an arbitrary jump over those among the top 10 counties can only be deemed a crutch. 

Just like the Allianz League, the 11th and 12th placed sides are awarded with a path to the knock-out stages ahead of those who finish ahead of them.

On the other hand, what Kerry must do to qualify for the Munster championship is incredibly difficult. 

It’s also unfair that the Leinster final isn’t played until three weeks after its final round and the Munster decider two weeks after their last group games that four teams — Offaly, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford — have to play four matches in 21 or 22 days. 

As counties are being confronted with unprecedented demands, there could have been some allowance to ensure all are on a level playing field.

For a developing side like Offaly who are favourites to be relegated, it must look like a nightmare scenario. It was no surprise their manager Kevin Martin was bemoaning the new-look format last week. 

“A knee-jerk reaction (to the Super 8s) is the proper word for it. It’s going to generate more revenue, there’s no doubt about it. The games are going to be intense but if things don’t go right for teams as regards injuries it’ll be the team with the biggest, strongest panel that going to come out at the end of it. We are the minnows of our championship, it’s going to be hard on us if we do pick up a lot of injuries, fingers crossed.”

Martin has a point but the calls for more championship hurling had been made for years prior to the introduction of football’s quarter-finals addendum. 

One of the hurling fraternity’s greatest fears was how much the Super 8 was going to dwarf hurling in July. 

A draft schedule, prior to Special Congress voting to change the hurling championships, proposed there would be five senior hurling games this July to 19 in football. That fear has been allayed somewhat — there will be 12 football outings (eight in the Super 8 and four qualifiers) compared to eight in hurling (the provincial finals, the All-Ireland preliminary and proper quarter-finals and semi-finals), although in August there are six football fixtures and the All-Ireland hurling final. 

When everything is so new, nobody expects the GAA to get the balance right straight off but there already seems to be plenty of room for improvement.


Can GAA back Sky?

Landing upon a GAA article on the Sky Sports’ website over the weekend, we were greeted with the odds available from SkyBet for the Leinster senior hurling championship first round game between Offaly and Galway in Tullamore on Saturday week.

We won’t reiterate the odds only that it was difficult to ignore them considering the ad showcasing the prices broke up the reading flow of the piece.

As annoying as that was, the promotion was more jarring than anything else. 

At February’s Congress, the GAA were roundly and rightly praised for introducing into rule a ban on gambling sponsorship. In total, 93% of delegates backed the motion to prohibit gambling companies from sponsoring a competition, team, playing gear, or facility.

Parent company Sky UK are more of a telecommunications firm than a bookmakers and they might be considered more a media partner than a sponsor. 

However, on the second count, they are now backing the Super Games Centres as well as the GAA’s annual coaching conference. Those events might not be considered to fall under those areas defined by the rule but after passing such a motion the GAA’s attitude towards gambling couldn’t be clearer.

Last year, Sky Betting and Gambling saw its revenue jump by 38% to £516m and it attracted over half a million extra more customers to bring their total to 2.6m. 

With such stunning numbers, it wouldn’t be any stretch to suggest the article had as much usefulness in carrying the odds as it did in generating website hits and complementing Sky’s coverage of the Championship.

It was explained from the top table at Congress that those units who have existing sponsorship deals with gambling companies would have time to phase out the relationships.

To avoid charges of hypocrisy, the GAA might need to take a similar approach to its own dealings.

TV blackouts help nobody

The possibility of the eagerly anticipated Ulster SFC quarter-final between Monaghan and Tyrone not being televised live is a dread that is likely to be experienced across the country these next couple of weeks as elements of RTÉ’s and Sky Sports’ live Championship coverage plans begin to leak.

The prospect of two live Ulster SFC matches as opposed to seven last year is quite the decrease.

That such a potentially epic match might not be televised live would seem to go against the promotional ethic of the sport, but then the GAA decided upon their parameters long before they altered the face of each Championship, which compelled the television companies to stockpile their exclusive rights in the new provincial hurling championships and the Super 8 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final phase.

Croke Park could make a fine argument that they would be damned if they did make amendments to their current five-year arrangements. 

Had they allowed RTÉ and Sky more games, they could be considered greedy, and it wasn’t so long ago that former GAA director general Páraic Duffy was hinting there was too much live GAA being shown.

No live TV in Healy Park on May 20 may bump the attendance but whatever the crowd is, there will be many tens of thousands more who would love to watch it on their television screens. Coming a week after £1m (€1.14m) was ringfenced for the promotion of GAA in Belfast, that the live feed of the Ulster championship could effectively be cut off seems counterproductive.

“It’s not helping our kids,” was how former Tyrone footballer Conor Gormley, who works as a full-time underage coach in the county, reacted to the news last week. It’s a sentiment that could soon be shared by many.


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