So, another year of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship had come to an end.
It’s time for some reflection. I really love hurling and the senior county variety, but the whole set up has problems that are really starting to ruin my perception and experience of the game.
At the core of it is an increasing understanding that the sport has negative aspects within its very gameplay that nobody seems eager to halt. I speak of increasing amount of gamesmanship, simulation and the like, combined with a traditional acceptance, even encouragement , of the more basely violent aspects of the sport, the targeting, the swings, the thrown hurleys (three of those in the SHC finals alone) that are often excused or praised with the word “physicality”.
I hate that word, for the record. It’s used to excuse a wide variety of nonsense behaviour, from multi-player square ups, to chops from the camann itself. The sight of Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan complaining after being sent off in the quarter-final against Limerick, for deliberately swinging his hurley at the back of Sean Tobin, was a rather telling breaking point for me, as I realised the extent to which this has gotten out of hand. The sport has an ingrained violent streak, which some players think should overrule the basic code.
Add in my usual complaints: the shocking incompetence of GAA officials, the counter-productive ticket prices, the dismissive attitude shown towards women’s games, the messed around league structure, and everything else I raised back here.
But let’s focus on this year for the moment. You’ll find a lot of people praising this years edition of the SHC, and they have a point. Some really good games in there, Limerick/Tipp, the Leinster Final, Kilkenny/Tipp, the first SHC final.
But that hides a basic truth about the SHC now, which is that gulfs that had previously emerged are only getting wider. For all the praise Galway has gotten, Kilkenny still claimed another All-Ireland. For all the years they have now competed for Liam McCarthy, teams like Antrim and Laois are still getting thrashed every year.
Hurling has a competitiveness issue, the “blowout problem” as I like to call it. There were 26 games played in the SHC this year. Of those 26, a full 12, nearly half of them, ended with one team winning by ten points or more. Of the remainder, only seven ended in a draw or with a winning margin of less than three.
This competitive issue, where bad teams are allowed into the SHC and numerous others lack the ability to keep up with the better teams needs to be addressed. In the later case, it is up to the county boards of the middle bunch, those behind Kilkenny and Tipperary, ahead of Westmeath and Carlow, to do the work required to stop the seemingly unending dominance of the Cats and the Premier. In the specific case of Limerick, my county, the constant bickering within the county board has to cease, managers have to be given more than just two years to achieve good results and player power on the panels has to be curtailed. And that is the kind of advice that can probably be repeated in varying levels for every county.
But beyond that kind of thing, a long term deal that has to be done on the initiative of individual counties, there are other reforms that can be done.
The first thing to do is ditch the also-rans, and shut out the possibility of “promotion” from the lower competitions, unless the evidence of results shows beyond all doubt that a county is deserving of a place in the top tier. The also-rans I refer to are Westmeath, Carlow, Laois and Antrim. These no-hopers, who are capable of only winning games against the others and have shipped an astonishing amount of goals and points this season, simply do not belong in the SHC.
That will be a bitter pill for the likes of Antrim, but I saw, first hand, the game where they conceded 8-26 to Limerick. They have had years to improve and stake a more serious claim to a position at the top, and have failed to do so. Their inclusion is simply seeing them stagnate as whipping boys, while doing nothing to improve competitiveness. In their first two qualifier games this year, Limerick scored a combined 14-47 against Laois and Antrim. That was a hardly a fitting test before going onto play teams like Clare and Kilkenny later. It was a simply a run-out, a distraction from more serious business.
Get rid of these teams. Reduce the SHC to the ten best, at least for a few years to let the system undergo some revaluation. The best ten in Ireland are easy to pick out after all. It’s the Munster teams, Kilkenny, Dublin, Offaly, Wexford and Galway.
Now that you’ve reduced the number of teams to a more manageable style, its time to talk reorganisation. I consider the provincial system to be extremely archaic at this point in GAA history, and would be fully in favour of abolishing it in favour of some sort of open draw system. But, in lieu of that I would propose something a bit more complex, but maybe more palatable to traditionalists.
That would be to remove the title of “Leinster” and “Munster” from those provincial championships, and instead make them just the “Bob O’Keefe Championship” and the “Insert sponsor/GAA legends name here Championship” (the Munster trophy doesn’t have a name). We have the current situation where Galway are the Leinster champions, so some realities have to be put in place.
From there, draw the 10 teams into each separate competition, based on a simple seeding system. Looking at the previous year’s results and the point at which each team exited the championship, you can determine a rudimentary level of competitiveness. For example, in 2012:
Rank One (Winners and finalist): Kilkenny and Galway
Rank Two (Semi-Finalists) Cork and Tipperary
Rank Three (Quarter Finalists) Waterford and Limerick
Rank Four (Latter Stage Qualifiers) Clare and Wexford
Rank Five (Early Stage Qualifiers) Dublin and Offaly
Drawing from those seeds, you could end up with something like:
Bob O’Keefe Championship Insert Name Here Championship
This way, a greater amount of unpredictability is added to the SHC, while retaining the essence of current provincial championships.
From here, you can do whatever you like. Play the thing out like it is now, the Munster format, with three automatic semi-final positions handed out with a single “First Round” match creating the fourth, with the two championship winners getting an All-Ireland semi spot. The eight losers compete off against one another for the other two in a qualifier system. Everyone plays at least two games, most more than that.
I would actually be in favour of more radical change than that, of conversion to a League style format. Same as before, only the five teams in each championships play each other one. Top two at the end go into semis. The advantages are that everyone gets to play at least four games, increasing competition and gates for individual counties, while still having near enough the same number of games as the current format. Another is that the powerhouses of Kilkenny and Tipperary will no longer be capable of winning an All-Ireland by playing just four games, some of them uncompetitive blowouts with the elimination of the also-rans. Or that Munster is defeated by its own excellence, its champions exhausted by up to three difficult matches while Kilkenny stroll to another Leinster titles. Worries over teams lagging in a table not playing with enough drive can be deflected by the ranking system, judged on league placing, that will determine the seeding for the following year.
Yes, we already have a league system. But the NHL is treated with a casualness by most counties that is pretty understandable. It’s a training ground for the more serious business, a sideshow. My ultimate pie in the sky idea would be to simply merge the two competitions together in the above format, and make each group a home and away thing, where everyone plays the other twice. All played over a longer timeframe of course.
Big problem there is the interaction with club level, which always suffers at the hands of county needs, but if they are capable of working it out now, then they can do it for this idea.
I know this is just a pageantry of the mind. The GAA is set in its ways and change comes slowly. I’ll say this: change has to come. The provincial system is going to die out, that process started the second Ulster and Connacht were excluded. Leinster is going that way, leaving Munster, as it always has been, as the most competitive province, the only one left capable of saying it is a worthy hurling championship. But it can’t be that on its own.
Change can be hard, but it is important to realise that it doesn’t have to be permanent. If these ideas, or anyone else’s, were tried and failed, I’d be more than willing to revaluate and go again. But the process has to be started somewhere. I think these proposals, some version of which I think is inevitable, will increase competiveness among counties by eliminating also-rans and varying games year to year. I think it will create more of a spectacle, adding some much needed verve to a sport that is simply starting to bore people, especially those outside of hurling’s big catchment areas. You can have all the close games you want, but nothing is going to hide those blowouts or the sheer monotony of seeing Kilkenny half-heartedly cheer at yet another All-Ireland.
Anyway, I’m just doing some spitballing of ideas I’ve been throwing around my head for a while. It was those two qualifier games, the Laois and Antrim blowouts that Limerick yawned its ways through, that made me formulate them. I really love hurling, but I don’t want to have sit through that kind of thing again. This is too good a sport to be throwing away its time and energy on such pointless contests. Time to evolve.