Hurling’s best kept secret, the Joe McDonagh Cup, comes out of the shadows on Sunday with live TV coverage of the final at Croke Park between Laois and Westmeath. For those involved, the rewards of victory must be greater than yo-yoing between first and second tiers.
‘You have to test yourself against the best’
Laois captain and Joe McDonagh Cup finalist Paddy Purcell has called on the GAA to consider expanding the Leinster hurling championship from five to six teams. Carlow manager Colm Bonnar stated earlier this month after his team’s relegation from Leinster that with ‘the stroke of a pen’ the GAA could have a ‘six-team championship’ to aid developing counties.
Purcell hopes to guide Laois into the 2020 Leinster championship by beating Westmeath on Sunday though, realistically, whoever wins at Croke Park will be tipped to struggle in Leinster next year, just like Carlow.
Purcell said it would make sense to add an extra team to Leinster which, in practical terms, would give this year’s McDonagh Cup winners a fighting chance of remaining in the top-flight next year.
“I read that from Colm Bonnar and I agreed with him,” said Purcell. “For us to improve, if we do go up into Leinster, we obviously wouldn’t like to go back down the following year. You have to test yourself against the best, that’s the only way to improve. I would be very much in favour of a six-team Leinster but I can’t see that changing this year anyway.”
Purcell said that the long-term ambition in Laois is to not just qualify for the Leinster championship but to remain there and be a competitive force. The experienced midfielder said that Dublin offer a template in this regard for improvement and rising up through the ranks. Laois will get to play Dublin in the preliminary All-Ireland quarter-finals if they win the McDonagh Cup final while the losers will play Cork.
“Looking at Dublin, they’re after coming from a place where we were and now they’re competing at the top table,” said the Rathdowney-Errill man.
They’re kind of the standard-bearers for us, they’ve shown what can be done if the hard work is put in. They have taken it to a new level, physicality wise even, so they are an exceptional team and an example for us.
Laois got up close with excellence in the quarter-finals of the league but were blown away by All-Ireland holders Limerick, losing 2-22 to 0-11. Yet, Purcell believes that the gap between Laois and the top counties isn’t as large as everyone thinks.
“The gap isn’t as big as people make out,” he claimed. “But to bridge that gap is very hard because yeah, we’re improving but Limerick and these teams are also improving. For us to bridge that we have to improve double on what they’re improving, so it is very hard.
“In a county like Laois there is a turnover of players every year as well, so you might be missing two or three next year, and maybe two or three new lads come in and mightn’t be up to the physical side of it.
“It can take a couple of years then to build up to that physical level. That’s where the top-tier teams are at an advantage, they always have the lads they want available.
“That’s another reason why it’s a big incentive for us to get into the Leinster championship and, hopefully, we’ll keep everyone that we want available to us.”
Laois and Westmeath drew 1-22 apiece in their final McDonagh Cup group game, a ‘fairly tame affair’, according to Purcell. He expects a blood and thunder final with the losers also guaranteed that preliminary quarter-final clash with Cork.
“Obviously, we want to win the Joe McDonagh and if you win you play Dublin, that’s the route we want to take,” said Purcell.
“We’d definitely relish a big match like that against a top team. We saw what Dublin did against Galway so we know that they’re flying it at the minute. We were very close to them in the league but we know the league is completely different.”
Westmeath are back in the final after losing to Carlow last year. They beat Laois 2-21 to 1-21 in that 2018 campaign and Purcell hasn’t forgotten the defeat. “They beat us convincingly, bullied us nearly last year,” he said. “They’re a good team. Killian Doyle is flying it and Tommy Doyle is probably the best full-back in the country.”
Quaid accuses the GAA of ‘cherry-picking’ hurling’s elite
Such is the gap which exists between the top-tier and Joe McDonagh counties, Westmeath manager Joe Quaid sees it as inevitable that future winners of the second-tier competition will go straight back down after a season at the top table - as happened to Carlow.
Carlow hurler Paul Coady tweeted earlier this month that a championship restructure should keep them in the top-tier. This sentiment was echoed by former Kerry, Laois, and Offaly manager Éamonn Kelly who proposed increasing to six the number of teams in the Leinster championship by retaining Carlow at the top level for 2020, as well as promoting this summer’s Joe McDonagh Cup winners.
Quaid is in favour of such a move, criticising a system which allows Waterford to retain their Munster championship spot despite failing to win a single fixture this summer or last. His Westmeath charges and Eddie Brennan’s Laois do battle this Sunday to be part of the 2020 Leinster championship.
“Absolutely, I’d support putting an extra team in Leinster. There is no purpose to teams yo-yoing up and down. I go back to Carlow this year, they are automatically relegated no matter how good or bad they do because there is a gap there,” said the Westmeath manager.
Carlow’s heaviest defeat in this year’s Leinster round-robin was a 15-point reverse to Wexford, whereas Waterford shipped 18 and 20-point beatings. Why is it, then, asks Quaid, that Carlow are the ones to be relegated without as much as a play-off between themselves and the Déise?
He accused GAA top-brass of “cherry-picking” which teams get to sit at the top table.
“Waterford had a worse score difference than Carlow but there were no recriminations for them and their poor performances. They are able to go back, reset, and play Division 1 and Munster championship hurling next year.
“And if they suffer the same results next year, they’ll still be there in 2021. It is a two-tier system. People are banging on about the prestige of the Leinster championship. Antrim have played Leinster and they’re not from Leinster. Galway played Leinster and they’re not from Leinster. What was wrong with Carlow and Waterford playing off, the winners remaining?
“If Kerry won the Joe McDonagh, they aren’t automatically promoted. Instead, they go into a play-off and could be playing Joe McDonagh next year. It seems to me to be cherry-picking.”
Quaid has welcomed the decision of TG4 to televise live this Sunday’s Joe McDonagh decider but was disappointed none of the round-robin games were given the same treatment.
“What annoys me is that in the earlier round-robin games, they were not shown on either GAANOW or television. The ones that were shown on GAANOW at 3pm on a Saturday, they could easily have been shown on television. We are trying to stop fellas going to America, trying to get fellas to come in. If they are not getting the recognition or it is not attractive to come in, then they won’t come in.
“Televising the matches would make a massive difference. Then again, Carlow were in Division 1B of the league and in the Leinster hurling championship this year, and not one of their matches was televised. Being up the grades doesn’t guarantee you recognition either. It is more of an issue with the television people, but look, the GAA own the product, they should be able to dictate what is shown.”