The basic inequity of the promotion and relegation system applied to the new structure of the All-Ireland hurling championship is so obvious that it is impossible to ignore.
That the team that will finish bottom of the Leinster hurling championship should be treated differently than the team that finishes bottom of the Munster hurling championship is plainly wrong.
More than that, the idea that the winners of the second tier championship (the Joe McDonagh Cup) should be treated differently, dependent on their identity, is even more wrong — indeed, it is hard to know where to begin with that aspect of the story.
For those who are unaware of the detail, if Kerry hurlers win the Joe McDonagh Cup, they will have to defeat the team that finishes bottom of the Munster hurling championship if they are to be allowed to progress to that competition for 2019.
By contrast, if any of the other teams (Antrim, Laois, Westmeath, Meath, or Carlow) win the Joe McDonagh Cup, they will qualify directly for the Leinster hurling championship in 2019.
And the team that finishes bottom of that competition — most likely Offaly or Dublin — will be relegated without a play-off match.
Apart from being convoluted, the obvious discrimination against the hurlers of Kerry is a stain on those who talk endlessly about the glory of hurling and of the importance of spreading the game.
It is worth examining how this system was put in place.
The GAA’s Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) devised the new hurling format last autumn after being asked to do so by GAA management.
The immediate impulse behind this new system was the fear that hurling matches would be swamped by high-quality football ones following the introduction of the new Super 8s format for the All-Ireland senior football championship at quarter-final stage.
This makes sense: the new format has started strongly and the matches have been very good — in short, it is a worthwhile experiment. It is much too early to judge its success or failure, but there is clear merit in what is playing out around us in early summer.
It is also the case that there have been competitive, impressive matches in the Joe McDonagh Cup — the range of scorelines, the upsets, and the unpredictable nature of the contests underlines the merit of what is taking place in this second tier.
Where the new structure is patently unfair, however, is in its promotion and relegation component.
So why was it put in place the way that it was?
The answer to this is unsatisfactory. When they were asked to design a new structure for the hurling championship, the CCCC were told that there was a preference that the system would cater for promotion and relegation.
This was a logical request, something that any tiered system must accommodate.
A logical request demands a logical response, however. And the logic that was applied in designing the new structure is so strained that it can only be considered unsustainable.
According to a spokesperson for the GAA, the particular nature of the new system was designed in response to recent results. In particular, it was explained that the record of Munster counties in the
All-Ireland series ‘far outshines’ those from Leinster.
Mention was made of the fact that every one of the competing Munster counties has appeared in an All-Ireland final since 2007.
By contrast, it was pointed out that only Kilkenny and Galway from the Leinster championship have appeared in a final in that time.
The conclusion apparently drawn, therefore, was that Munster counties merited a particularly sympathetic protection from relegation, while Leinster counties merited no such protection.
But why was appearance in an All-Ireland hurling final over the last decade deployed as the rationale underpinning a promotion and relegation system?
After all, if the system had been restructured even a few months previously, the rationale would have been null and void, given that Waterford had not appeared in a final between 1963 and September 2017.
What if some other rubric such as actually winning a final was chosen? To this end, extending back over four decades, just three teams competing in the Munster hurling championship have won All-Irelands, while four counties competing in the Leinster hurling championship have done so.
That this ‘winning a final’ rubric would be a silly foundation on which to base a system emphasises the point that the foundation on which promotion and relegation in the current system is based is similarly unimpressive.
In fairness to the people who designed the system, the GAA spokesperson said that there was no dissent from hurling counties to the new promotion and relegation structure, apart from a suggestion from Offaly that both McDonagh Cup finalists would enter the Liam MacCarthy in the same year at round before the quarter-final stage.
This defies belief. Can it really be the case that the hurling counties of Leinster really allowed their teams to be treated in this manner? How did they get this one so wrong?
And that the hurling counties of Munster were willing to treat the hurlers of Kerry as second-class beings is also most instructive.
If there is a defence to the discrimination on view here, it is that this is the type of inequity of arrangement that usually only happens through oversight.
Essentially, it is the result of people not fully thinking through the meaning of their decisions and instead something is revealed to them only when practical implementation makes plain that there is a real flaw on view.
There is no shame in that. Institutions routinely make decisions entirely in good faith and in anticipation of imagined outcomes, only to find their motivations undermined or contorted.
What matters always is how redress is made when flaws become apparent. It is in their next steps that the men who run hurling at the upper end will demonstrate their commitment to the game.
They will also demonstrate their interest in those who toil in the marchlands between counties who have genuine aspirations of winning an All-Ireland and those who dream of first being competitive at that level and then — maybe, just maybe — finding a way to ascend to the summit.
It may take a Special Congress or some other mechanism, but the structure should be reviewed and equality of opportunity be offered to every entrant. That basic premise — equality of opportunity — is, after all, the basic measure of fairness.
Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at UCD.
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