At the launch of the Tailteann Cup in Croke Park, which had players from 15 of the 17 competing counties present, there was near unanimity on what was the biggest prize on offer.
hey spoke of the prospect of being afforded a competitive game in Croke Park. But next on the list in terms of carrots was the prospect of guaranteed Sam Maguire Cup football in 2023 for the winners.
But for hurling’s equivalent – the Joe McDonagh Cup – success in tomorrow’s final comes with very different consequences for Antrim and Kerry. Should the Ulster men win, they’ll rub shoulders with the best in Liam MacCarthy Cup next year, with some hurling bluebloods likely to be visiting Corrigan Park next summer.
However, should Kerry cause an upset and get up the steps of the Hogan Stand, then as a Munster side they’ll have to beat Tipperary – the bottom team from this year’s provincial round-robin – for that same right. It’s a contradiction and inherently unfair. And leaves the GAA between a rock and a hard place.
The play-off is designed to protect the sanctity of the Munster hurling championship, probably the most compelling of all the GAA’s provincial skirmishes. But ironically that same rule effectively excludes a Munster team. Kerry, by dint of geography, are less equal.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand. If you were to set out to design a championship this morning, it would be hard to look past the Munster Championship template. Five similarly ranked teams all within spitting distance of each other geographically and with well over a century of enmity, stories and heroes behind it.
It’s a championship that sells itself. It’s the GAA’s very own group of death, every summer waiting to explode in colour on the streets of Thurles, Ennis and Cork.
On the other hand, the GAA has blurred provincial boundaries when it deemed fit. Galway’s admission to Leinster was well overdue. Similarly, bringing Antrim in made sense, while there’s great irony in the fact that had Kerry won the McDonagh Cup last year, they’d have been accommodated in the Leinster Championship this term as the straight knockout system in place meant there was no ‘bottom’ team to play off against in Munster.
But for winning the same prize, the Saffrons will get a much better shake.
It’s a rule that brings into focus hurling’s ‘squeezed middle’. It’s been a tricky area to address. League formats have changed over time but finding something to everyone’s liking is near impossible.
In the event of a Kerry win, nuance is required. Sending Tipperary into the Joe McDonagh would be counter-productive but another suggestion has been to bring Munster in line with Leinster and have six teams to allow Kerry to take their chance.
Speaking to Michael Verney of the Irish Independent earlier this year, Down hurling manager Ronan Sheehan pointed out that the GAA was losing competitive counties from the top tier of hurling rather than adding them. And he stressed that a course correction was badly needed. A concentrated effort to raise the levels of counties with some hurling infrastructure is the way forward in Sheehan’s opinion, even if it comes at a cost to counties like his.
“The biggest challenge for hurling is that in 130 years or so, the same number of small counties are competitive at the top end,” he said.
“Should we say to ourselves as an association that we prioritise starting off in this order, and I’m cutting my own throat here, that we prioritise Offaly, Laois and Antrim and we will make those counties competitive at the top level every year.
“When you’ve finished the job with those three counties, we’ll move onto the next three and the next three. The GAA are spreading themselves too thinly and it’s just not working.
“Why would you spend £10,000 supporting two clubs in a county that actually will not survive if one or two individuals decide to emigrate or leave? I don’t like saying that and I know what it’s like to fight at the coalface but I’m realistic enough to know that if we want to make teams competitive on a consistent basis then we need to focus first and foremost on those that have at least got semblance of structure and the numbers to sustain themselves.
“Since the late ’90s, Offaly and Antrim have fallen out of being competitive at All-Ireland stage. We’ve actually got less teams competing than we had 20 years ago so whatever we’re doing, it’s not working.”