Friday, September 28, 2007

No end in sight to ten years of tinkering

Ahead of Saturday's Special Congress in Croke Park it seems that there is little consensus on the Hurling Development Committee's proposals to once more change the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship.

It's no wonder. Martin Breheny summarized the problem perfectly in Wednesday's Irish Independent, I've got format fatigue: 'There are no easy solutions, but constantly tinkering with the format is only compounding the problem... The game deserves better but while so many vested interests play the veto card the problems will continue. By changing format so often, it's merely confusing a situation where everybody knows that the only fair way to run the All-Ireland championship is through either a straight knock-out system or a 'Champions League' format.'

Hear. Hear. At least someone in the debate is speaking sense. The supporters and fans want a simple format such as those suggested above. (see also quote from Pat Daly, Head of Games Development) It would also allow for the most essential condition of a fair championship: that all teams should face the same number of games to win the championship. Alas, that's just not possible. The existence of the Leinster and Munster championships allow no scope for manoeuvre leading to the confusing and convoluted compromises such as those on the table for Saturday's meeting. The comments from Munster Council chairman, Jimmy O'Gorman, reported in Wednesday's Examiner, in response to the mooted Champions League format, demonstrate the entrenched attitudes and "we're all right, Jack" mentality that makes substantial progress impossible.

It's true that losing the Munster championship would be a great sacrifice. But hurling has always suffered from a problem of competitive balance. Recent meddling in the championship format has done little to change that as the chances of different teams winning the All-Ireland have not increased. Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary continue to dominate the championship. The rationale for change is the right one; to keep the championship compelling and to help hurling develop outside of the traditional base. Increasing the uncertainty of outcome generates interest from supporters, increases the demand for watching matches and interest in playing the game. Only radical proposals can bring about such change.

Another much talked about benefit of change would be to provide more free days for club fixtures. There is increasing frustration among club players because club fixtures have been crowded out of the summer programme to allow for the inter-county championship. Club players are dissatisfied because they don't know when they are going to play. It's simple. This impacts family and social life in particular for holiday planning. Also, when club players finally get to play their championship it's cramped into September and October. Why should they have to idle the summer months away when playing conditions are best? Club and county should be played in tandem throughout the year, whatever the injuries to the county stars.

These problems are not just limited to hurling. The football championship is also suffering the same problems of competitive balance and lack of level playing field. Without taking away from their considerable achievements it is fair to say that Kerry have their place reserved in the quarterfinals of the All-Ireland every year by virtue of the backdoor system. Win or lose the Munster final and they are in the quarter finals. Three victories later and they have won the All-Ireland. Compare that with teams from Leinster or Ulster and the paths they face to get to the quarter final stage. (For an easy comparison look at the county by county results on the Irish Times website.) Football too, at all levels, would benefit from a simple open draw knock out system or Champions League format.

However, as long as the Provincial Councils remain stubborn and self-interested there will be no simple answers and everyone will continue to lose out.

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