Wexford and Kilkenny proved you can't beat hurling games in packed local venues

Wexford and Kilkenny proved you can't beat hurling games in packed local venues
Conor McDonald of Wexford in action against TJ Reid of Kilkenny. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The Christy O'Connor column

SATURDAY in Wexford was the kind of eternal night Wexford hurling was made for.

An epic win. A heroic performance. A mass pitch invasion where the result triggered more than just a mass explosion of emotion. It was almost like a liberation from the hurt and pain or more than a decade spent tied up in Kilkenny chains.

An hour after the game, dance music was still blaring out over the loudspeakers. Kids were still hurling on the pitch. It was a magical day Wexford have been craving, made all the sweeter by taking down their historical oppressors.

This is what the championship should be all about; local skirmishes played in local venues, where the players can almost feel the hot breath of the supporters on their necks.

That will become a defining part of the championship from next season because the structure is about to change.

In his Irish Examiner column last Thursday, Donal O’Grady discussed the varying possibilities and outcomes of a new and impending hurling championship format. The bigger picture is already becoming clearer. It will provide more games and a higher profile for hurling but O’Grady was still more inclined to look at the specifics around which that bigger picture will be framed.

The proposal, which will be debated at a Central Council meeting on Saturday, includes three groups of five – Munster, Leinster, and a development conference, mostly made up of the teams which currently contest the preliminary round robin of the Leinster championship. If passed, the winner of that ‘Development’ group will play the third Leinster or Munster team for a quarter-final place. “Kerry v Cork maybe?” asked O’Grady. “A game between these protagonists at that stage of the All-Ireland series would be a farce.”

O’Grady does make an important point. The record of the 10th placed hurling team (fourth in Division 1B) in league quarter-finals over the last three years has been disastrous. Those teams in that ‘Development’ group deserve to compete on the same stage as the other two but the developmental concerns raised by how poorly the 10th ranked teams have fared in league quarter-finals is a key issue which the Hurling Development Committee (HDC) are keen to address.

The current proposal is presented by Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) but the HDC have some input. The HDC will meet on Tuesday evening to discuss what they may add to the current CCCC proposals before sending their ideas on to Central Council.

The Gaelic Players Association (GPA) are also liaising with hurling squads and relevant GPA working groups. They will release their consolidated feedback report prior to Saturday’s Central Council meeting.

Last week, members of each inter-county hurling squad were sent an email requesting that all county hurlers review the GAA proposal. Titled, ‘Proposals – Have your Say’, the email stated: “If you have any concerns, or indeed wish to support the GAA proposal, it is extremely important you inform your GPA Squad Rep now. It is important we establish a position from each squad. Your squad rep will be asked to submit feedback to the GPA by next Wednesday 14th June.”

That timeframe is extremely tight in trying to collate all relevant feedback, especially at such a busy stage of the season. Initial player feedback from a couple of squads has been mixed but the HDC are set to advocate for an even more radical and streamlined approach, with the Munster and Leinster Groups forming a top 11 (six in Leinster), and the others taking part in a revamped six-team Christy Ring Cup. The winners of that competition would be guaranteed a place in the following year’s Leinster championship, with the bottom team relegated.

In time, Leinster could theoretically comprise Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin, Galway, Antrim and Kerry. That would scare other Leinster counties but the HDC will try and push their plan on a number of selling points; a greater number of competitive games; a more realistic chance of success; a greater national profile with the Christy Ring final played as a curtain raiser to the All-Ireland final. The CCCC may not countenance a system which risks the demotion of some top ten counties to the Christy Ring Cup but how many legitimate complaints can an 11th placed team really have?

There are other alternatives, especially if the GAA refused to change the current provincial system and just wanted a Super 8 model at the quarter-final stage similar to football. That would provide tasty matches at the business end of the season but the three group model would provide a more equitable spread of games to more teams. In any case, that’s not on the table now.

The CCCC’s proposal was largely taken from the previous HDC format, designed under the chairmanship of Tommy Lanigan and the GAA’s director of games development, Pat Daly. In that original blueprint, two teams from the Development group were set to play a preliminary quarter-final but this is a new HDC now, under Paudie O’Neill, and the conditions have altered in the meantime.

Prior to the introduction of the Leinster Round Robin system three years ago, a number of teams below the elite had stepped forward and moved up to a certain level. The test then was for them to hold it at that level. Some have. Some haven’t.

Teams can only improve by playing those at a higher level but there was a worrying slippage from some of those teams outside the top Nine during this year’s league.

Can the current GAA proposal address those lingering concerns on Saturday, which would then go before a Special Congress in October? Trying to find that proper balance between competition and development continues to be one of hurling’s greatest challenges.

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