It’s still September but this week you could spy a tumbleweed blowing through the sports pages where the big GAA coverage used to be.
The GAA has already taken a strategic decision to cede the month of September next year by finishing the All-Ireland championships in August. I hope there is a plan for trying harder at selling the summer series and that we make a serious effort to market the club game this time next year.
In the current vacuum, it would be hard for the casual GAA follower to even notice that this weekend could be a watershed for hurling.
In the run up the Special Congress to discuss hurling reforms, there has been virtually no meaningful discussion, no sign of a leading voice coming out and fighting for the good of the game, no grassroots engagement.
Earlier in the year, the GAA was lit up with excitement about the advent of the ‘Super 8s’ in football. This weekend the Association has the chance to do something progressive about the game of hurling but the whole business feels like an afterthought.
With the changes to the football schedule next year ,there is a real danger that hurling will be lost in the calendar and in the coverage. Nobody seems to care very much. Despite the yearly spurts of lip service, hurling is still the poor relation of football. Worse, we are own worst enemy. When something needs to be done, the voices for the status quo win out. The key influencers are the counties who live off the failings of the current system and the counties who couldn’t be bothered with any of it. The Hurling 2020 committee proposed nothing radical at all.
Martin Fogarty’s appointment as National Hurling Director provided the game with another preacher who will do the dog work of travelling the country giving coaching sessions. I am sure the football people in Croke Park are happy with that arrangement. His job description doesn’t allow him to help shape the future of the game. We don’t hear anything from him on the big picture.
It’s time the National Hurling Director job description grew from being, in reality, a full-time coach to include directing half a dozen or so master coaches to do that work. Thus, freeing up time to direct hurling strategy on a national basis.
Sadly, this weekend’s Special Congress is at risk of being very little ado about nothing. The lack of debate is deeply disappointing as is the worry that sometimes — when it suits — GAA memories are short.
A challenge, if you are interested: ring your county board delegate now and ask them to explain the pros and cons of the proposals and more importantly what the calendar will look like next year. Of course, this Congress comes at the wrong time.
Not too long ago Ireland was poxed by the politics of the last atrocity. Progress in the GAA is always hindered by the politics of the last championship. Hurling had a good championship this summer. So? Well if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, seems to be the attitude.
But hurling is broke. It is struggling in Ulster and in most of Connacht.
The “revolution” years of the mid to late-90’s settled down to a long period of dominance by Kilkenny.
For every Waterford or Limerick team that bubbles up promisingly, there is a worry about what has happened in places like Offaly or Laois or even Wexford.
We see counties like Meath, Westmeath, Carlow, or Kerry make steps forward and then hit a glass ceiling and fall away. In general, everybody agrees that vaguely, yes, something must be done. In specific terms though nobody really wants anything done. The path of least resistance is to do nothing.
If that happens this weekend, it will be a disgrace, a disaster, and a betrayal of hurling.
Yes, this season was a good season for hurling. But hold the image of it in your mind and superimpose it on next summer’s calendar which brims with football games.
If hurling goes with the same structure there will be weekends when the wall-to-wall football coverage isn’t interrupted by a single minute of hurling. Hurlers will be neither seen or heard.
The hurling championship will be swamped.
This weekend the delegates to Congress can either wave the white flag and surrender meekly or they can put the overall good of their game first and vote for more hurling and better hurling.
There are several motions on offer with regard to the reshaping of the championships. Motion Two, emanating from Central Council is, to me, the best thought out and will serve the game well.
The idea of two groups of five teams each provides every county with four guaranteed games next summer.
A provincial championship like Munster which currently has four games in it suddenly has 11 games, all of them meaningful. Ten group stage games and a provincial final between the top two teams.
That’s two home games for counties like Clare, Waterford and Galway that don’t normally have them. An opportunity for championship atmosphere at different locations in the country. An opportunity for extra promotion of hurling in those areas on the back of these games. It’s the opportunity to sell tickets for all four of your county’s summer games plus the league matches if you are imaginative enough.
There are no dead rubber games. The third-placed team in each group of five progress to the All-Ireland quarter-final. The bottom team faces serious peril.
The proposed Tier 2 championship offers relegation and promotion between the Liam MacCarthy and Tier 2. The top two sides from the group containing Westmeath, Antrim, Carlow, Kerry, Laois, and Meath contest a Tier 2 final, with the winners replacing the bottom-ranked side in the Leinster round-robin.
If Kerry — or another Munster side — win Tier 2, they’ll face the lowest ranked Munster side in a promotion/relegation play-off.
The proposal offers genuine championship excitement and high-stakes built into a group stage format. There is a clear and present danger that a top-tier team might drop into the second tier and for the first time ever an ambitious county coming up may look at a summer where they will play four serious championship matches at a high level, two of them at home.
That is motivation. For the big boys, there is still an incentive in winning the provincial championship and leapfrogging into the semi-finals after the group stage. It’s not a silver bullet but it is a very positive step forward.
You can see a time, maybe 10 years down the road, where we might have a dozen competitive hurling counties.
Meanwhile, some of the heavy hitting hurling counties come to the Congress with their own agenda.
Kilkenny and Waterford want no change. Cork want a ‘Super 8s’ format to kick in after the provincial championships are played off as normal. This backloads the games till later in the summer but the collateral damage is to the provincial championships, which become redundant.
More big games between traditional counties later in the summer would certainly be good for a county with a newly tarted-up stadium but it doesn’t provide the broader impact.
Tipperary, meanwhile, wants the provincial championships played out on a knockout/losers group basis while Dublin wants no change at all to the provincial system.
Various counties involved in the proposed Tiers 2-5 of hurling have different specifics they want looking after.
The weaker Leinster counties — Offaly, Laois and Meath — are looking to have a route into the same season’s MacCarthy Cup for the Tier 2 finalists rather than waiting till the following year.
The first challenge of Congress will be to select a preference between the motions relating to the overall championship structures and then put that to a Yes or No vote where a 60% majority is required to pass.
Incredibly there has been virtually no grassroots debate on these issues, hence you wonder where delegates will draw their mandate from. There seems to be an acceptance that the number of competing motions reduces the chances of any one motion reaching the 60% mark so the danger is that hurling will stagnate while football experiments.
The key point for anybody interested in putting the good of the game over the good of their county is that basically, any change is better than no change.
The worst result that can emerge from Congress this weekend is that nothing gets done and hurling goes into 2018 with a dowdy structure and not enough games to make hurling visible in a flood tide of football.
It will be a disaster if we plod through next summer with hurlers waiting five, six, or seven weeks between matches, with hurling reduced to a footnote to a busy season of football and with sponsors, supporters, and more importantly players asking, is that it?
Please, for the good of the game don’t let the opportunity pass, it mightn’t come around that quickly again.