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Dublin: 8 °C Tuesday 21 January, 2020

The game is rigged to prevent counties like Carlow from joining hurling's elite

Carlow forward Paul Coady voiced his frustrations yesterday as his team drop back down to the Joe McDonagh Cup.

The Carlow team before their Leinster SHC game against Kilkenny. The Carlow team before their Leinster SHC game against Kilkenny. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

CARLOW’S BATTLING DISPLAY against Galway in the opening round of the Leinster SHC on 12 May, where they went down by 1-24 to 1-18 in Salthill, earned them plenty of plaudits and few pats on the head.

In reality, Carlow running Galway so close shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. The Barrowsiders gave a signal of their intent with a credible draw against the 2017 All-Ireland champions during the league.

There were only six points separating the sides in the championship that afternoon, but the two counties are worlds apart when resources are taken into account.

Galway can draw players from 24 senior clubs. Carlow have just four senior hurling sides in the entire county: Mount Leinster Rangers, St Mullin’s, Naomh Eoin and Ballinkillen. At one stage there were eight senior teams, but the playing numbers have since dwindled to a roughly 10-mile radius in south Carlow.

Speaking to The42 last December ahead of the 2019 campaign, Carlow boss Colm Bonnar voiced his concerns about the future of hurling in the county.

“It’s down to three or four clubs at the moment and it’s very hard to keep hurling sustained when the base is so long,” he said.

“The support base wouldn’t be anything like it would be in the traditional counties. It’s just poles apart from where Carlow are compared to the bigger counties. There’s a great bunch of lads there and how long it’s going to last, I don’t really know. 

Colm Bonnar Former Tipperary hurler Colm Bonnar has overseen a rise in Carlow's fortunes. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“They’re trying to increase the profile of hurling in Carlow because when this present generation of players goes, is there another bunch coming through? You’ll always get good hurlers coming through but it’s the numbers in terms of trying to keep standards where they are at the moment.”

Even coming off the back of a successful 2018 season where they annexed Division 2 and Joe McDonagh Cup honours, Bonnar wasn’t harbouring any delusions of grandeur.

They’ve got a talented group who’ve steadily improved under the Tipperary native over the last three years, yet there’s no guarantee the next generation will be of the same standard.

Hurling at the elite level has never been at a higher quality, but the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. The GAA appears blind to the deep-rooted issues the small ball code is facing around large swathes of the country.

Carlow were largely competitive in their four Leinster round-robin games, which concluded with a 15-point defeat to Wexford on Saturday night. It means they’re heading back down to the Joe McDonagh Cup next season. After a summer on Broadway, the prospect of another year away from the bright lights awaits. 

Paul Coady and Richard Kelly celebrate after the game Coady celebrates after Carlow's Christy Ring final win in 2017. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Naturally, it’s not something they’re looking forward to. County panellist Paul Coady took to Twitter yesterday evening to vent his frustrations at the obstacles facing them and other lower-tier counties.

“Hurling has nine top counties, all at a relatively similar level and for 100 years, aside from Offaly and Antrim, no other teams have ever featured in the All Ireland final,” he wrote.

“The GAA have had 100 years to bridge that gap to 21 other counties and have never done that. Is this not a massive failure? For Carlow to close the gap, similar to Laois, Westmeath etc, we need serious help from the GAA.

“Serious financial help, serious coaching, more officers and planning. I realistically think on some days that the other 21 counties would be better coming together and boycotting the GAA until serious promotion, financial aid and planning was put in place to help these counties wanting to climb these levels.”

While Tipperary jetted off to Alicante for a warm-weather training camp earlier in the year, Carlow had to make do with a one-day camp in Tramore. Coady also raised valid points around the extortionate coaching grants handed out to Dublin between 2007 and 2018, which was over €17m more than Carlow received in the same period. 

A fairer allocation of funding and pooled sponsorship deals to help weaker counties are obvious ways for the GAA to start levelling the playing field.

Then there’s the structure of the 10-team All-Ireland SHC.

During the early years of Eugene McGee’s reign over Offaly, they’d play challenge matches against Kerry whenever the opportunity presented itself. More often than not, the Kingdom would inflict heavy beatings on McGee’s side during those encounters.

McGee was criticised locally for subjecting his team to confidence-sapping defeats. His retort was simple: “The more we play them, the more we get used to playing them, the more we learn about them, the better the chance we have of beating them in the future.” He turned out to be right.

The same logic applies to Carlow. They’re not going to improve by playing against Joe McDonagh Cup opposition next season. Yo-yoing between the top two tiers is hardly the answer either.

Johnny Coen with Paul Doyle Johnny Coen clears the ball under pressure from Paul Doyle. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Offaly’s dramatic fall over the past 12 months shows the lasting and damaging impact relegation from the top tier can have on a county’s fortunes.

So what is the answer? Expanding Leinster to six teams is a step that would give the likes of Carlow, Laois and Westmeath the opportunity to consolidate and develop.

Munster also needs fixing. Waterford also fell to four defeats in the southern province and did so with a worse scoring difference than Carlow. But the Deise didn’t have the threat of relegation looming over them.

While there’s automatic promotion/relegation between Leinster and the McDonagh Cup, if Kerry lifted the second tier competition they’d have to win a play-off against Munster’s bottom side to go up.

In a fair world, Kerry wouldn’t be outcasts in their own province. But watching Kingdom shipping heavy losses isn’t be a good look for the sacred Munster championship. Neither is having Waterford relegated to the second tier. So to prevent it from happening, the GAA rigged the system.

As Offaly legend Brian Carroll alluded to last month, hurling’s elite sides have “climbed the ladder and pulled it up after them.” Introducing a sixth team into Munster might dilute the quality of the competition, but it’s a fairer structure.

Coady’s impassioned plea is even more pertinent as it’s looking increasingly likely a two-tier structure will be introduced into the All-Ireland SFC. It could come in as early as next season. 

“Nine of the 10 Liam MacCarthy teams had games shown live, one team hadn’t,” he stated.

“One team had a two-minute voiceover every Sunday night with every other team having highlights/analysis. One of the 10 teams needs the promotion more than the other nine and that one team is obviously Carlow.

“At least a two-minute voiceover was more than the zero coverage the Joe MacDonagh teams got, with those counties also crying out for promotion. This is why Gaelic footballers don’t want a second tier because they know it will get no respect or coverage.” 

Gearoid McInerney signs autographs Gearoid McInerney signs autographs for fans after Galway's six-point win over Carlow. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

This isn’t the first time Coady has spoken out against elitism in the game. Last November Kilkenny and Galway competed for the Wild Geese Trophy in Sydney, while Clare, Limerick, Wexford and Cork flew to Boston to take part in the Fenway Hurling Classic.

“There’s a huge financial cost going into that and we don’t even know the half of it,” he said. ”Why are they trying to grow the game across the world? Grow it in Ireland first.

“It’s only really in nine counties, so I can’t understand why they’re worried about America or Australia. Grow the game where it needs to be grown first.

“Where is hurling going to go? Are they forever going to stick with the eight or nine teams that are going for Liam MacCarthy? Or are they actually going to put a push on?”

Carlow’s rise over the past couple of years has been great for the sport, but they won’t punch above their weight forever.

thewire McNulty and Bodie in The Wire. Source: HBO

It brings to mind a great scene in season four of The Wire. Police officer Jimmy McNulty and gang member Bodie Broadus are sitting on a park bench in Baltimore, sharing their frustrations about the respective systems they’re shackled in.

“This game is rigged, man,” Bodie says. “We like the little bitches on a chessboard.”

Carlow know the feeling.

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Colm Bonnar: ‘When this present generation of players goes, is there another bunch coming through?’

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Kevin O'Brien

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