Fears grow at lack of ‘serious’ hurling contenders

THE GAA cannot afford to allow the All-Ireland hurling championship become “the preserve of a small number of teams,’’ according to Director General, Páraic Duffy.

At the launch of his annual report yesterday, Duffy admitted concern that the number of counties deemed “serious contenders” for honours has diminished in recent years.

Pointing out that the Hurling Development Committee (HDC) had devoted much of its time to reform of the structure of the All-Ireland championship, Duffy says the focus now must be on the broader development of the game.

“Some years ago a consensus seemed to have emerged that the most effective way of raising the standard of hurling was to identify and fund, on a strategic basis, six counties with the potential to compete effectively in the All-Ireland semi-finals within 10 years. This has not happened in any deliberate fashion, although a significant investment continues to be made in the development of hurling,’’ he writes.

And, while he acknowledges the HDC approved a number of projects — including the establishment of schools of excellence and development squads — he believes there is merit in targeting some counties for a more intensive development programme.

“In 2002, the Strategic Review Committee speculated that only nine or 10 counties had a realistic prospect of success at All-Ireland senior level and while impressive work has been done to increase participation, it is arguable that the number of genuine All-Ireland contenders has fallen. A key objective for the incoming HDC must be to ensure that this issue is addressed through effective action.’’

At a more general level, he believes they should resist the temptation to “tinker” with arrangements for the National League and the championship in the short term — pointing out that they have a new championship structure in place for the next three years.

“The considerable change in the hurling championship over recent years — including the admission of Galway and Antrim to the Leinster Hurling Championship and the introduction of the Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cups — represents exciting initiatives and must be given a fair chance,’’ says Duffy.

“Let us focus on developing the game over the next three years before making a judgement as to whether our current league and championship structures best serve the needs of the association.’’

In relation to football, he reminds delegates that he was in a minority in opposing the reintroduction of Division Four teams to the qualifier series.

However, while accepting the decision of congress, he expresses the hopes that all teams will be genuinely competitive in the series.

Either way, he is in favour of deferring any decision on amending the structure of the championship — or the league — until the end of 2011.

“We will (then) be better placed to make a realistic assessment as to whether this structure is the most suitable for all teams. In making that assessment we will need to reflect on the reasons for the failure of the Tommy Murphy Cup and learn from that. And we’ll need to consider again whether some form of two-tier championship would be appropriate in football.

“Continual piecemeal reform of the championship and league does nothing for the status of the competitions. It confuses the public, creates the impression that our major competitions are inherently deficient and unfair and certainly does not represent the most effective means of decision-making’’

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