John Martin – More competition needed
GAA President Liam O’Neill has hinted that an open draw may surface down the line at some stage. It’s a hardy annual this one, a story that’s sure to fill column inches at some time throughout the year.
It usually surfaces in winter – so its early appearance this year is duly noted. It typically appears when there’s no action on the field of play, when the provincial club championships are over and it’s at least two months before the Walsh and Waterford Crystal competitions start.
Nevertheless, it’s always interesting looking at alternatives, and let’s be honest, whether it’s league or championship, in hurling no format stays around for too long without some sort of tweak.
But is an open draw at county level ever going to be more than a space-filler in newspapers? Can we really go back to a ‘one game and you’re out’ scenario? That’s never going to happen, but what is worth looking at is a system that will improve hurling as a product.
I had high hopes when Liam O’Neill took over as President that he would champion the cause of the hurling counties outside of the top table.
With him being a hurling man from Laois, he knows the challenges that face the likes of his native county, Antrim, Westmeath and Carlow. The Hurling Development Plan launched in February is a step in the right direction but it’s very much a case of slow and steady wins the race.
It’s realistic in the sense that it isn’t threatening enough to be outright rejected by those counties who don’t want a stick about the place, but will only produce real benefits if the Tain League is the thin edge of a wedge that drives club hurling fixtures deeper into the summer months.
I digress, but the open draw debate is more than slightly related to the development of hurling. A few years ago I would have been a strong supporter of some kind of open draw. With the entry of Antrim and Galway into the Leinster championship, hurling needs it less now than it did, but it means is that we continue to have the most bizarre structure of any sporting competition anywhere in the world.
Is that reason enough to change it? Probably not, but it should be fairly high on the list. What’s usually referred to a champion’s league type scenario followed by quarter-finals would at least give us an easy to follow structure to the championship – counties will know when they’re playing, which would in turn allow club fixtures a bit more room for manoeuvre.
The elephant in the room when discussing the open draw debate is the Munster championship. For years the Munster championship has held the hurling world to ransom by perpetuating the magical, mystical myth that every game is ultra-competitive, that what we have before us is the ultimate GAA championship towards which all others should bend a knee and aim to some day be just as great.
Jimmy O’Gorman’s usual rebuttal in the face of the pro-open draw lobby is that the Munster championship is working, why punish Munster when it is the rest of the provinces that need to get their championship up to scratch?
It is of course absolutely nothing to do with the four Munster senior hurling championship games going a long way towards keeping the proverbial wolf from the Munster Council door.
The first point is that it only works for five out of six of the counties, and the second point is that by implication O’Gorman would be open to a change of format if the Munster championship wasn’t a success.
That clearly isn’t the case. By the same benchmarks that make the Munster senior hurling championship a ‘success’, the Munster SFC is a total failure. Only once since 1935 has a team outside Cork or Kerry lifted the Munster football title. I’ve yet to hear anyone from Munster GAA lobbying for a change in the football format.
Ironically, as a stand-alone competition, the Munster hurling championship is usually a decent product. But by the same measure, accommodating it within the Liam MacCarthy Cup detracts from our showpiece competition.
There is a notion that because we have the best game in the world, that we also have the best product.
We have a system that doesn’t ensure a marquee match-up for the opening game, we have a system that means a team can lose to a team in May and meet them again in June and knock them out of the competition, we have a system that means losing earlier in the competition can be an advantage, we have a system that means a team can play three games, win two of them and be further away from the final than the team they beat in their opening game.
It is a system that ensures that when supporters leave their county’s opening championship match, they don’t really know when their county is in action again. It might be in four weeks’ time. Or maybe five. But don’t worry because we’ll find out when RTE host the live draw. At half seven on a Monday morning. On radio.
That’s not a great product. That’s a bizarre product. We put up with it because we get the odd upset, always get some great games along the way, and generally we end up with the best team in the country winning the All-Ireland.
But surely it would be worth trying, even on a trial basis, to come with an easy to understand system that isn’t full of anomalies and that doesn’t require a degree to figure out.