Westmeath hurling manager Michael Ryan says the Leinster championship should not be expanded to six teams, insisting Offaly will benefit from time spent in the second-tier.
Offaly were relegated to the Joe McDonagh Cup last Sunday and Ryan is adamant there should be no tweaking of structures during the off-season so to allow the Faithful County remain at hurling’s top table in 2019.
There’s a strong chance it will be Westmeath who replace Offaly in next year’s Leinster SHC, as Ryan’s charges have booked their place in the Joe McDonagh Cup decider with a round to spare. They’ll also feature in an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final later in the summer. Either Carlow or Antrim will join Westmeath in the final, with the winners earning promotion to the 2019 Leinster SHC.
Kevin Martin’s Offaly endured a torrid time within the new provincial system, losing their four games by an average of 15 points. In the last fortnight alone, they fell to Wexford and Dublin by 24 and 17-points respectively.
Offaly weren’t aided by the schedule, admittedly, with Martin noting after Sunday’s 2-24 to 0-13 loss away to Dublin that playing four weekends in a row was a “killer”.
Dublin boss Pat Gilroy, speaking after his team relegated Offaly, advocated the county hold onto their place in the Leinster SHC. Ryan, though, doesn’t believe Leinster should become a six-team competition.
“Offaly are still in Division 1B of the league. They’ll have five games in the Joe McDonagh Cup next year. If they are good enough, they’ll go back up. It is obviously disappointing for them that they were relegated, but people are only talking about Offaly because they have a great hurling tradition. Every day you go out, you have to perform and do the business.
“I don’t think it will be that detrimental to them. You just have to get on with it and there is no point dwelling on it.”
Westmeath were involved in Leinster qualifying groups from 2014-17, but Ryan, now in his fourth season at the helm, believes the Joe McDonagh Cup format provides a far better platform for developing counties who’s primary goal is to bridge the gap to the game’s traditional forces.
“The Leinster round-robin was pretty good in recent years, but this is a step up, because the opposition is stronger. We’ll play seven championship games this year, so will the other team in the final. That is excellent for hurling in these counties.
“The quality in the Joe McDonagh has been very, very good. You take Laois, who were the favourites coming in, they have a relegation decider on Saturday. Kerry would have been one of the competition favourites. They are not going to make the final. Because there are six teams in it, no team is getting a bye on any weekend. We are all playing at exactly the same time, so there is no advantage to be gained by having a free week.”
Leaving a somewhat sour taste has been the television coverage — or lack — of hurling’s second tier. No game from the opening four rounds was included in RTÉ’s The Sunday Game highlights programme. The competition was discussed last Sunday night, but for less than a minute. Not nearly good enough, says the former Waterford hurling and ladies football manager.
For Westmeath and, indeed, the remaining five counties in the Joe McDonagh, this weekend’s final set of round-robin fixtures will be their fifth outing in six weekends. No county was asked to play four games in as many weekends and that shouldn’t be the case in either Leinster or Munster.
“The structures are absolutely brilliant. You have several tiers, whereas you don’t in football. Far for me to comment on football, but it would appear that teams are out of their depth. The only thing that needs to be changed is having two weeks between games... once the teething issues are ironed out, there is a big future for hurling.”
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