The former Tipperary selector believes the qualifier group, which is linked to the All-Ireland series via a place for the best-placed team in a preliminary quarter-final against a third-placed provincial team, should become a cup in itself.
Ahead of Central Council’s discussions on the new hurling structures, O’Neill feels it would be more worthwhile if a competition featuring the would-be qualifier group teams along with similar-strength teams like Meath competed for a trophy with the final being played as the curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland final.
“I see it as a process and it’s ongoing and I think it’s positive that there is an engagement and people accept there is a need for change, but it’s important that the GAA, in creating more games, create more meaningful games.
“If you accept there is 10 teams of Liam MacCarthy Cup standard, five in Munster and Leinster... you could argue about one or two of them but if that is accepted for argument’s sake, what effectively exists is another tier of maybe half a dozen counties who are not quite at Liam MacCarthy Cup standard but probably above Christy Ring standard — Laois, Westmeath, Kerry, Antrim, Meath, and Carlow.”
Meath aren’t included in the proposed qualifying group but were unfortunate to be demoted to the Christy Ring Cup on score difference having beaten Kerry in the Leinster SHC qualifying group.
“Meath have a case,” says O’Neill about a county who have expressed opposition to the new SHC blueprint. “They were well able to compete at that level this year so you have to ask is it doing any good for Meath to be back down to Christy Ring standard.
“I would love to see that tier of counties getting round-robin games but they would get to play a final in Croke Park before the All-Ireland final.
“We have to provide a meaningful series of games for lads but also a reasonable opportunity of being successful in a competition and playing off for a trophy. A third-placed team in Leinster or Munster against the best team in the qualifying group, based on the league results, there is a significant gap between a team say like Laois and the team that would finish third in either province.”
O’Neill also argues that the league structure has to change in light of what is being proposed for the championship.