Most Joe McDonagh players want to play against top-level teams more regularly. James Crombie/INPHO

GAA continues to fail hurling through indecisive and haphazard thinking

Lack of coordinated vision hinders the progress of tier two counties.

DÓNAL ÓG CUSACK spoke on behalf of hurling’s second-tier counties when he accused the GAA of failing the game this summer.

“Carlow should have been left enjoy their Joe McDonagh win and prepare for next year. There’s no point bringing them into championship like that, not to mention Offaly,” he said. 

His plea was sparked by the 32- and 10-point defeats dished out to those counties in the All-Ireland preliminary quarter-finals.

“Our biggest problem is we can’t spread the game outside of those big counties and I would say the GAA has failed hurling.”

On Saturday, the second-tier counties had their say. Joe McDonagh Cup finalists will continue to play in the MacCarthy Cup preliminary quarter-finals after Special Congress delegates voted down a motion seeking to end the practice.

The outcome didn’t so much lay bare the competing visions for the future direction of hurling, but exposed the lack of any coordinated vision for the game’s development.

The GAA continues to fail hurling through indecisive and haphazard thinking.

The players have had their say via the GPA. Of the nine counties who have competed in the Joe McDonagh, 74% rejected the motion to sever the link to the All-Ireland knockout stages.

Even among the Offaly panel – hockeyed out the gate with a record 7-38 concession against Tipperary – seven in every 10 players still opposed the game’s removal.

Their manager Johnny Kelly took aim at the League and provincial structure instead.

“If they want a broader range of counties competing, they really have to open their eyes and look at that League. A yo-yo effect isn’t going to help anyone.

“Even though we got beaten today, so be it. Wouldn’t it be better to play against them next year and see can we close that gap?

“If it’s a 20-point gap, let’s bring it back to 10, but you won’t do it every two years. It’s not going to happen unless we get consistent games against the top teams.”

Counties need the right mix of big days out and realistic steps forward.

As Kerry selector Pat Bennett said last year: “We want to get the hammerings”.

They lost to Wexford by 21 points in their preliminary quarter-final. “We got bet but the boys loved it. This is where we want to be. These are the teams we want to play. 4,500 below in Austin Stacks. That is how you are going to do it and build it.”

GPA CEO Tom Parsons summed up the feedback: “The argument can be made that the preliminary quarter-finals have done nothing for the development of hurling. If that is the reason for supporting this motion, I would ask what does this motion do for the development of hurling? The answer is nothing.”

tom-parsons GPA CEO Tom Parsons speaking at GAA Special Congress. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

The implied vision behind the GAA proposal was that the second-tier competition could be given the oxygen of a longer summer run.

A Joe McDonagh final could take a plum date around the final weeks of the hurling championship, maybe even as an All-Ireland final curtain-raiser now that slot is available.

That said, the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard, and Lory Meagher Cups don’t have the deadline pressures of a preliminary quarter-final date and they were all run off by the first Sunday in June. Are all GAA units serious about advocating for a full calendar of games for their players across both codes or running the hurling off quickly to prioritise time and expenditure into football?

Either way, the rejection means the Joe McDonagh will be shoehorned in once again in 2024.

This year, Offaly had to play seven games in seven weeks after winning Division 2A of the Hurling League.

Runners-up Kildare, the most recent feelgood story for hurling development, were so gassed out by their week-on-week schedule they got relegated back to the third-tier Christy Ring Cup. How much will that delay their progress?

The seeds of the problems that will sprout up again in TV debates six months down the line are being planted now.

The inaction in the boardroom is mirrored by the lack of action on the field in a county like Kerry.

As Joe McDonagh Cup runners-up for three years in a row, they should be fast-tracking for the step up. This year, they bowed out on 13 May. Their club championship was over by 6 August.

With the exception of a Munster campaign for their county champions in November, Kerry’s players will go six months without a competitive game of hurling at club or county level.

Laois manager Willie Maher this spring described his new charges as “years behind” in strength and conditioning.

His predecessor ‘Cheddar’ Plunkett was realistic when describing the difficulty in keeping those players to a year-round conditioning programme when the season is so short and the gap between club and county preparation so vast.

Hurling League reform is now being considered just five years after the GAA jettisoned a far more entertaining and egalitarian structure. A return to that previous meritocracy is under consideration but it is done so in a vacuum.

The GAA’s restructures ought to take a global perspective rather than view each problem in a silo. Otherwise, their approach will continue to be characterised by U-turns and rejected votes, while hurling remains a minority sport in two-thirds of the country.

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