THE Ulster Senior Hurling Championship will see a revamp next year when all but one of the nine counties will be competing. It’s a positive move, and gives more meaningful games to more hurlers – who deserve their inter-county season to go beyond the end of June.
Aside: At last night’s Ulster GAA Writers’ Annual Awards, for the first time in 28 years there were no nominees for the Hurler of the Year Award from Antrim. The nominees were Damian Casey, (Tyrone), Paddy Henry (Derry), and Brian McLaughlin (Fermanagh).
The proposed 2016 format is a variation of the 2008-2011 version where a seeded competition eventually paired Antrim with their final opponents. For three years (2008-10) Ulster was the only province in which every single county competed in the senior hurling championship.
Cavan withdrew in 2012, and the format for the last couple of years has seen either four or five teams contest the Liam Harvey Cup.
The format which is coming into place next year is an improvement in that it will provide the ‘lower tier’ Ulster counties with what is in effect a ‘B’ championship. Importantly there is no requirement for the ‘B’ winners to beat a team from the top tier in order to take their place in the ‘A’ championship the following year – win the lower tier competition and you’re automatically promoted.
There’s just one obvious problem – when is it going to be played? Early indications are that Ulster GAA has earmarked July as a possible timeframe. That will work fine in 2016 (and indeed any other year when there are no Ulster sides in the MacCarthy Cup) but if an Ulster side wins the Christy Ring Cup and earns promotion to the Leinster championship, a July schedule would be slap bang in the middle of the Leinster knock-out stages and All-Ireland qualifiers.
The fixture clash issue has arisen in the last few years, notably back in 2010 when London were expected to play a Rackard Cup semi-final and an Ulster semi-final in the space of 24 hours, and more recently there was the saga that was the 2013 Ulster championship, which was finally completed in February 2014. It’s a good proposal and format – but it’ll run into difficulties when an Ulster side returns to the MacCarthy Cup.
Last week’s All-Stars seemed to pass by without generating much debate or excitement. That may be due to what was a relatively uninspiring year for hurling on the inter-county front, coupled with the absence of much controversy over the selections.
As ever there were quite a few nailed-on certainties – Colm Callanan, Paul Murphy, Joey Holden, Daithi Burke, Cillian Buckley Michael Fennelly, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid, Seamus Callanan and Maurice Shanahan were all but guaranteed a gong, and of the debateable positions, there’s not too many players that can feel particularly hard done by.
Noel Connors took the third full back spot alongside Murphy and Holden. Cathal Barrett would have been the other main contender for this spot but I think the selectors have got it right, Connors was solid all year. Holden was the best of the number threes in 2015 but it wasn’t a vintage year for full backs. Joe Canning had Holden in trouble a couple of times and if he’d got a bit better supply of ball, Holden might have been exposed further.
I think that Padraig Mannion was slightly hard done by in that he didn’t do much wrong all year – except of course get caught for three goals against Tipp. He was up against a man on fire that day and for the rest of the game did quite well on Callanan. It should also be remembered that when he was finally switched, John Hanbury dealt with Callanan by rugby-tackling him to the ground and giving away a penalty.
Tadhg de Burca made up the half back line with Burke and Buckley. The Waterford sweeper had a great season, playing his role to perfection but there was always a chance that the negative aspect to the position would influence the selectors.
You’ll hear the argument that it’s easy to look good and clear ball when there’s no one marking you. I don’t remember too many times when de Burca was standing in acres of space. He caught high ball over other players on several occasions, he broke tackles and his distribution and decision-making was first class throughout the season.
David Burke was chosen to partner Fennelly in midfield. Again, this is probably the right choice. Deise pairing Kevin Moran and Jamie Barron would probably had got one of the spots had Fennelly had a poor game in the All-Ireland final.
Cathal Mannion got the half forward post alongside certs Hogan and Reid. I would have had Jason Flynn instead of Mannion who had a good season but also seemed to go missing for key periods.
Ger Aylward was the final piece in the forward line. The talking point is the omission of Joe Canning who probably suffers from being judged by his own pre-set standards. Canning had a poor game against Cork and was also suffering from injury against Dublin. Aylward for me is the right choice – had a great season, very effective and very consistent.