|Kerry’s win last Sunday ended another championship year and we have the familiar situation of Kerry and Kilkenny preparing to take their respective cups on a county wide tour for the next six months.
Yet some people would suggest that the reason we are looking at the same teams winning every year is due to the presence of the back door and that we should revert to the old way or a straight open draw to give the weaker teams a chance. This is frankly ridiculous. Kilkenny have won seven titles this decade, none through the back door. Kerry have won five titles with two coming through the back door. There can be little argument this year that Kerry are worthy winners as they have proven themselves to be the best team in the country.
The notion that we should “give weaker counties” by going back to the old way is absurd. If they’re not good enough then tough, they need to up their standards, not looking for ways for the better teams to be caught cold in early summer so their path can be easier. This current Kilkenny team is the greatest hurling team in generations. After the decline of Cork from 2006 they had no real challenge in 2007 or 2008 but this year Tipperary came through and very nearly beat them. They did this not by luck but due to the fact that they have been improving radically in the last few years and bringing through some real hurling talent. We need other counties to follow their example.
There is also the argument that in the eighties and nineties counties like Galway, Offaly and Clare were successful because there was no back door and once the back door came in they went into the doldrums again. This is simply not true. These counties were successful because in the years they won All Ireland titles they were the best teams in the country and would have won All Ireland’s even with a back door.
There are many complaints about the current system in hurling and football and most of the alternatives being proposed are non runners. Most if not all alternatives favour scrapping the provincial championships. It’s hard to see how this makes sense. There is no doubt that since the back door came in the provincial championships have lost some of their edge but they are still better attended and for the most part more interesting than the qualifiers. Crucially they offer the weaker counties something realistic to aim for. If a county is starting form a low standard and is looking to develop then their first target is a provincial championship. Take the Dublin hurlers for example. Winning a Leinster title would be huge for them and would bring the game on a tonne in the capital and possibly be a step towards them winning an All Ireland.
We also hear many favouring a “champions league” format group structure for the early round of the championship. People advocating such a system clearly don’t watch the group stages of the champions league as they are utterly predictable and dull. There isn’t an appetite in GAA for league formats in a championship. In most cases where they’ve been tried they’ve been abandoned shortly after.
One of the other most favoured systems is just to have an open draw with no second chances. This also would not work. For example this year in the hurling we had a truly great final between the two best teams in the country. If we had an open draw then these teams could meet in May and we would lose one of the best teams too early. “So what”, some people might argue but if Tipperary were gone early then Kilkenny would have much weaker opponents in the final. How would that help the game of hurling? With the current system we don’t always get the best two teams in the final but it is set up for this to happen, which is the way it should be.
The major problems in hurling and football at present is the gap between the teams at the top, Kilkenny and Tipperary in hurling, Kerry, Cork and Tyrone in football, and the rest. New systems aren’t going to solve this problem. The sooner people stop blaming systems for this the better.
The championships as they stand are not perfect though but only need slight alterations.
Firstly let’s look at the hurling championship. We have too few teams playing hurling at a high standard but we should try and have a system which gets the best eight teams into the quarter finals each year. There is a simple way to do this. Run off the provincial championships as they stand. The provincial finalists all qualify for the quarter finals and all other teams are drawn against each other to see who makes up the remaining four places. Crucially the draw for this is determined based on how the teams finished in the league, ie the team who finished highest plays the teams who finished the lowest. There are many advantages with such a system. The provincial championships don’t have to be abandoned, there is a knock out element to every game a team plays, there is the potential for four competitive quarter finals, a team’s good league performance could be rewarded and no team can win the All Ireland after losing more than one game.
Secondly let’s look at the football championship. There is one very simple solution to this championship and that is to alter the provincial championships slightly. Currently we have eleven teams in Leinster, nine in Ulster, six in Munster and six in Connaught. Why not combine Munster and Connaught? This would give a much more interesting provincial championship than the two individual ones we currently have. Put the provincial finalists straight into the quarter finals to be joined by two teams coming through the qualifiers. Again all qualifier draws should be seeded based on teams positions in the league with division three and four teams being given home advantage when faced with a team from a higher division. This would have the advantages of improving the competitiveness of the provincial championships, making counties take the league more seriously and like the hurling format proposed above have a knock out element to every game and no team could win the All Ireland after losing more than one game.
Kilkenny and Kerry are the cream of the crop and have been for some time now. Whatever system was in place this year it is most likely that these are the two teams that would have been successful. Other counties must look at what they are doing to remain so successful and try and replicate it themselves rather than moaning about the system of the championship that is currently in place. Open draws or league formats would only lead to less entertaining summers which would do nothing but damage the organisation. The above suggested alterations to the championships would still mean the best team in the country would be likely to win the All Ireland but would give us more entertainment along the way.