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Thrilling games and shock results - new round-robin series has been incredible but could be even better

The new hurling championship structure has produced some sensational games but there are some changes that are worth considering.

THE INTRODUCTION OF a new hurling championship structure has produced arguably the most exciting provincial campaigns in recent years.

Sean O'Brien, Michael Cahill, Semaus Kennedy and Padraic Maher tackle Pat Horgan Source: James Crombie/INPHO

This applies particularly to the Munster competition where thrilling encounters were played out over successive weeks and surprise results abounded.

Few would have predicted at the outset of the season that Tipperary and Waterford would be eliminated from the championship by the end of June, an outcome which illustrates just how enthralling the contests have been.

The Leinster competition was comparably less exciting but still generated some intrigue, with the clash between Wexford and Kilkenny proving to be the pick of the bunch as Brian Cody’s charges rallied from nine points down to win by just one.

Galway have won most of their clashes at a canter but their apparent dominance is still quite a new experience for neutrals to adjust to, after picking up Leinster and All-Ireland silverware last year.

All these factors have combined to produce an exciting new hurling format although there was some trepidation at the beginning on account of the short turnaround between games, and the high risk of injury associated with that.

Many players have spoken of ‘heading into the unknown’ in this regard but overall, the revamped system has been a notable success.

However, further adjustments should be considered to enhance the competition even more.

Shane Kinsella and Joe Canning Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Break between fixtures

Recap: One of the key aspects of this new championship structure is the removal of big gaps between fixtures, a grievance which several players have mentioned in the past.

They got their wish with the introduction of more regular games, but the flip side of it was that they were played on a weekly-basis, which is perhaps more regular than the players would have wanted.

The tighter fixture schedule was naturally going to test the depth of panels and a few major players missed out through injury.

Waterford had probably the biggest casualty list with Tadhg de Búrca [collar bone], Barry Coughlan [hand] Noel Connors [back] and Darragh Fives [calf] all succumbing to injury during the round-robin series.

Brendan Maher was the most notable loss to the Tipperary team after he tore his cruciate in their clash against Clare, where a defeat for Michael Ryan’s side saw them bow out of the championship entirely.

Suggestion: The increased frequency of games has been a good move, but it’s worth considering bringing in a longer break period between some games to allow all teams recover better, which in turn would enable them to prepare better for the next game.

Equal fixture schedules

Michael Ryan Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Recap: Following on from the above point, there were some inequalities in the fixture schedules across the Leinster and Munster SHC championships.

Some teams were afforded a one-week break during their campaigns, while other counties were forced to play every week, which would have put a considerable strain on their recovery time.

Offaly, Wexford, Waterford and Tipperary were the unfortunate teams that fell into this category for 2018, and three of these sides are no longer in contention for the rest of the championship.

Their breaks occurred at either the beginning or the end of the round-robin series, which is of no addition to them in terms of their preparation and recovery protocols.

Whether or not you can attribute their poor performances to the physical and mental toll of the weekly matches is debatable, but it’s certainly not fair that they don’t get a break when the other teams do.

And in Offaly’s case, they have been relegated to the Joe McDonagh Cup on the back of four consecutive defeats which is a hammer blow to the Leinster team who are trying to rebuild under Kevin Martin.

Suggestion: Schedule fixtures to ensure that each team gets a bye during the round-robin series, or set aside a designated one-week break period for all teams to observe the break at the same time.

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Remove unfair Kerry exception

Tommy Doyle with Richard Coady and Diarmuid Byrne Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Recap: The introduction of a promotion/relegation feature was undoubtedly a welcomed addition to the revamped hurling championship structure.

It offers developing counties the chance to contest for a spot in the Liam MacCarthy competition by winning the Joe McDonagh Cup, a competition which featured Carlow, Westmeath, Kerry, Laois, Antrim and Meath this year.

Carlow and Westmeath will contest the final this year with the winners going straight through to the Leinster SHC in 2019.

The exception however is if Kerry win the competition. In that case, they would not be granted automatic qualification and would have to go to a play off against the team that finishes bottom of the Munster championship.

The rationale behind the exception to the rule relates to the fact that the Munster teams are collectively stronger than their Leinster counterparts.

But the impact this has on Kerry still needs to be addressed.

Suggestion: Give all Joe McDonagh Cup winners direct passage into the top-tier championship. Alternatively, all winners of the competition should have to go through the play off route.

It would also be worth reviewing the scheduling of the final. This year’s Joe McDonagh Cup final will throw-in just 15 minutes before the Munster SHC final on Sunday, thus limiting the kind of audience that the Joe McDonagh Cup can attract.

Other positives/negatives

Damien Cahalane with Tom Devine Cork's Damien Cahalan tackling Tom Devine of Waterford. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Some teams had fixtures to fulfill after they were ruled out of the championship and it was heartening to see those sides apply themselves to those games when there was only pride to play for.

Tipperary, Offaly, Dublin and Waterford were already out of contention before the conclusion of the round-robin series, and while Tipp and Offaly were able to finish up their campaign after suffering the killer blow, Dublin and Waterford had one more round of games to complete.

Waterford pushed Cork all the way in their final outing, while Dublin gave the Leinster and All-Ireland champions a scare in Pearse Stadium.

Losing the 2017 All-Ireland finalists Waterford, and semi-finalists Tipperary this early in the championship is an unsettling thought for all lovers of the sport, and an unfortunate symptom of the new system.

Tipperary brothers Noel and John McGrath have been outstanding this year while Waterford’s Tom Devine rightfully drew praise for his performances after taking a year out in 2017.

His Déise teammate Tommy Ryan has showed how much he has developed since his substitute appearance in last year’s All-Ireland final with a haul of 1-3 against Cork, and it would have been interesting to see if he could progress even more throughout the summer.

The debut season of this revamped provincial structure is coming to an end on Sunday when the usual suspects Galway and Kilkenny contest the Leinster crown, while Cork will hope to defend their Munster title against Clare who are looking to win the final for the first time since 1998.

This has been a fascinating championship to watch, and there’s much more to look forward to this year.

But it could be even better in 2019.

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