Provincial finals here to stay

THE GAA’s top administrator, Páraic Duffy, has declared his full backing for the provincial championships – as well as the All-Ireland qualifier series which has done so much to undermine them.

The advent of the back-door systems in the 1990s has led to a plethora of tweaks in both championship codes in recent years and yet the mood for change has yet to be sated, particularly in hurling.

Opinion has been sharply divided, with some calling for a return to the old straight knockout format while others have advocated scrapping the current geographical blueprint entirely and starting from scratch.

Duffy’s conviction on the issue is such that he has devoted a full page to the matter in his latest annual report, which he will present to Congress in Newcastle, Co Down next month.

Of the current structures, Duffy said: “I have not as yet seen an alternative put forward from any source that could meet the various needs of the Association and, as such, I don’t foresee any major changes in our main championship structures.”

His devotion to the provincial competitions is not blind.

The Monaghan man accepted yesterday imbalances exist between the four provinces. However, he pointed out that the provincial structures had served the GAA well for 125 years and also claimed that most of the criticisms towards them have emanated from outside of the Association.

“Within the Association, I am unaware of any great desire to abandon our traditional structures with the exception of the reasonable and practical incorporation of Antrim and Galway to the Leinster hurling championship.”

That last point is debatable as numerous players and managers have sounded their displeasure at existing structures in recent years, while a plethora of alternatives have been suggested in their place. Even the GAA’s own Head of Games, Pat Daly, has openly discussed the possible benefits of a Champions League-type system but Duffy has been turned off that idea by similar experiments at club level.

Pointing to diminished interest and smaller attendances in earlier rounds, Duffy added that their adoption at county level would result in more games played while adding to the squeeze on an already-constrained club scene.

For all the current structure’s faults, the Director-General pointed out that no team had ever gone out to lose a provincial fixture and added that the four best sides now routinely reach the respective All-Ireland semi-finals.

He went on: “It is a simple fact that games in the provincial championships continue to attract significantly larger attendances than those in the four rounds of the qualifiers, even when the exact same counties are involved.

“Recent independent research on the subject also confirms to us that local rivalry is a highly significant factor in attendance at GAA games.

“For the overwhelming majority of counties, a provincial title remains a realistic and desirable goal at the start of each season.

“The fact that attendances have remained constant at provincial games since the introduction of the qualifiers would seem to indicate that our supporters feel likewise. Nor should it be overlooked that winning a provincial title remains the quickest route to All-Ireland glory.”

Duffy has also expressed his concerns about hurling promotion/relegation proposals for the upcoming Congress which could result in an increase in the number of teams competing in the Liam McCarthy Cup.

If accepted, a motion on the clár could eventually see 16 counties competing for the main hurling championship by 2012 and competitiveness – or lack of it – would undoubtedly be an issue were that were to happen.

Reservations were also expressed about the overall league and championship structures for weaker hurling counties with doubts raised as to what contribution the schedule was making to the overall game in those areas.

The lower grades currently play inter-county league and championship fixtures between February and July but the Ard-Stiurthóir has suggested that their season be switched to a more compact April-June slot.

“It would mean better playing conditions and reduced costs and would free up money for investment in measures to increase participation figures and standards in the counties.”

* The Association’s annual reports have been posted at: www.gaa.ie/about-the-gaa/publications-and-resources/

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