How we can retain the provincial championships and still have an incredible hurling system — by then merging the Munster and Leinster tables.
BY SHANE STAPLETON
More often than not, talk of hurling structures is left to a quiet time of the year most regularly referred to as silly season.
Yet, as we enter a huge weekend of provincial final action, we are reminded of a great opportunity to enhance the hurling system.
For a number of years, the small ball has operated within a tiered structure, which by and large has been a good thing. Yes, you can argue the toss over parts of it, but there are strong competition across the board.
At the top level, 2018 was the greatest championship in living memory, while 2019 also had plenty to shout about.
The round-robin element to the provincial championships were discarded for 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, but they should make a return in the near future.
Again, there is the odd issue with dead rubbers and certain teams resting players if their fate has already been sealed, but generally it has been very good. More games, more opportunities for panellists, more drama.
As mentioned, it was last played in 2019 with Tipperary and Kilkenny topping their respective provinces (see tables below), before Limerick and Wexford claimed the honours in the finals.
Carlow were relegated to the Joe McDonagh Cup, while second-tier finalists Laois and Westmeath joined the top three counties in each province for the All-Ireland series.
Upon the return of the round-robin, what if we then merged these two tables for the All-Ireland series? (It is worth nothing that Leinster has six teams, but the proposal can be adjusted easily to account for this.)
Limerick and Wexford would get bonus points for winning their provinces (let’s go with two), while Tipp and Kilkenny also get one each simply for reaching the decider. All of which means your merged table would look like this:
2019 All-Ireland series league table
1) Tipperary — 9 points
2) Wexford — 7 points
3) Limerick, Kilkenny — 6 points
5) Dublin, Galway — 5 points
7) Cork, Clare — 4 points
9) Waterford, Carlow — 0 points
Tipperary would then need to play against Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin, Galway and Carlow to ensure they have had one game against everyone. Likewise Kilkenny would have to face each of their five Munster teams. And so on, and so forth.
Should we proceed with ten teams in the Liam MacCarthy level, that would mean a minimum of nine championship games each.
In terms of progression, this would be huge for all concerned, huge for supporters, for towns across Ireland, for panellists getting opportunities to be used by managers, for promotion of the game. For not going years without seeing Galway v Cork, or other fixtures we are often denied due to provincial set-ups.
2019 All-Ireland series league table (mock-up after all nine rounds are played)
1) Tipperary — 18 points
2) Wexford — 17 points
3) Limerick — 16 points
4) Kilkenny — 15 points
5) Dublin — 13 points
6) Galway — 12 points
7) Cork — 11 points
8) Clare — 10 points
9) Waterford — 7 points
10) Carlow — 3 points
Based on the mocked-up table above, the bottom four would go into a relegation draw where Cork and Clare would have home advantage against Carlow and Waterford respectively — with the two losers going down, and the two Joe Mac finalists coming up.
In the All-Ireland knockout series, Tipp and Wexford would get a well-earned week off to recharge the batteries, as the teams from third to sixth play in quarter-finals.
Limerick (third) would get home advantage against Galway (sixth), while Kilkenny’s (fourth) position ahead of Dublin (fifth) grants them the chance to host the fixture at Nowlan Park.
In the All-Ireland semi-final, table-toppers Tipp get a semi-final against the lowest-seeded quarter-finalist to come through, while Wexford will take on the other — and of course the All-Ireland final will be the end point to the season.
It would mean 46 matches, with more than enough time to play the games off — and with different segments of the championship easily compartmentalised so they can be sold to sponsors: provincial series, All-Ireland leagues, All-Ireland knockouts.
If the 2019 Munster championship can be played in less than seven weeks, we’re effectively looking at doubling that for the All-Ireland league — plus another month or so for an extra game plus knockout series. Given the split season with club, this can all be accommodated.
The question is: what about this doesn’t work?
(Just as an addition, some will observe that this works for the top tier with ten or 11 teams, but what about the other levels where there are half as many entrants? We must be creative, but each team meeting home and away will double fixtures, before knockouts ensuring a full calendar.)
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