The headline on the Sunday paper of November 1 said it all: 'Back door open for four more years'. It was heading the report of the G.A.A. Special Congress at Rosslare the previous day which had voted to extend the experiment of the 'back door' for another four years. It did make one change. The runners-up in Leinster and Munster will no longer be protected. Henceforth they will go into the hat with the Connaght and Ulster champions in order to decide the pairings.
At the end of almost 90 minutes of debate, the experimental format brought in for a two-year period in 1997, received an overwhelming vote of confidence from the delegates, with the exception of Offaly. The delegates, however, refrained from enshrining it permanently in the rule book. Offaly, in spite of benefiting from it in a spectacular fashion in 1998, remained opposed to it as they had when it was advocated two years previously. The county delegate, Andy Gallagher, argued that the experiment had not raised standards at under-age level, had not done anything for the weaker counties and was damaging the game at club level. Con Murphy agreed with the latter point, the marginalisation of the game at club level, while more and more hype was being focused on it at the very top. 'We don't want an elite association at one end and an association dying at the other,' remarked the former president of the GAA.
Those in favour of the new format showed how hurling had enjoyed an unprecedented rise in popularity, both in the numbers attending games and in the television audience watching at home. The substantial increases in revenue meant that Croke Park was able to invest £2.5 million over a three-year period into the development of the game at grassroots level.
At the moment there is no need to speculate on what will happen at the end of the four years when the second 'experimental' period comes to an end. This second period of assessment may be a sop to the traditionalists and/or a way of retaining the freedom to adjust to new thinking at the end of the four-year period. Whatever happens then it is most unlikely that we shall ever revert to the pre-1997 situation.
In assessing the situation it is important to recall the reasons why the experiment was brought in in the first place. It was an attempt to increase the number of hurling games available in the championship and to take into consideration the state of the game in Connaght and Ulster. Central Council was trying to ensure that the best hurling teams in the country qualified for the All-Ireland semi-finals. Over and above all these aims was the hope that more games would mean more T.V. coverage and that such exposure would increase the profile of the game and help to propagate it to a wider audience.
So far, so good. The experiment has worked. The game has got a great shot in the arm and the best teams are making it to the All-Ireland. Not only have the numbers attending hurling games increased but so also has the audience watching it on television. There is a hype about the game and its enormous attractiveness as a spectator sport is being more widely recognised.
What Should be Done Now?
I believe much more needs to be done and much more can be done. The new format has given us two extra games, the two quarter finals. Not a great number by any means and of concern and value only to the runners-up in the Munster and Leinster championships. More games are needed in order to make a bigger impact and propagate still more the game of hurling. If we follow the philosophy of advertising the name of the game is as much exposure as possible.
How can we do that? The most obvious way would be through an open draw for the All-Ireland championship, a competition which would become independent of the provincial championships. As it is we have really abandoned the provincial championship as a qualifier for the All-Ireland by ignoring the status of the provincial winners: runners-up as well as winners qualify under the present system. Why discriminate against teams that don't qualify for the finals of provincial championships? Why not let all teams into the All-Ireland series?
Such a development would be a logical conclusion of the present system. All teams would get a crack at the All-Ireland championship. Remember that Kerry haven't got a shot at that championship since the boys from Ballyduff won it in 1891 and other counties haven't got an opportunity since the open draw was abolished in 1888. The open draw would increase the number of hurling games. Under the present system there is an increase of two. In an open draw with twelve teams there would be an increase of eleven games. This would be a dramatic increase in the exposure of the game with the possibility of mid-week games for some of the opening rounds. This scheme of things would generate interest through unusual pairings, bringing together teams that would never have a chance of meeting each other.
Of course there would be an added bonus in this for the traditionalists in that it would bring back the strict knock-out system, which some believe has been sacrificed under the present experiment. There would be no backdoor since the championship would stand on its own two feet.
The Provincial Championship
And what of the provincial championship? It would continue as it is and need not be diminished in any way, at least no more or less than it is diminished under the present system. At the moment its winners are not recognised. There is no reason to doubt that the desire in counties to win a Munster or a Leinster championship would grow any less. The championship would run concurrently with the All-Ireland and it would give teams, knocked out in one, the opportunity to fall back on the other.
So, roll on 2002 and another Special Congress to decide what to do with the well-tested 'experimental format'. Understandably there will be voices raised for a return to the old certitudes. There will be apocalyptic visions of the effect on club hurling. (On that matter it is interesting to recall the club situation in Tipperary this year and we were beaten in the semi-final of the Munster championship. Our divisional championship finals weren't played until the first Sunday in September and our county final not till the first Sunday in November! Were we any better off by being knocked out at an early stage?) But I hope whoever is decision-making on that occasion will grasp the nettle and introduce the open draw, the logical outcome and a progression from the present situation.
This piece is called 'Sounding Off', so I can jump at this stage to a totally different matter, the throw-in in hurling. I'm more and more convinced it needs to be abolished. The solution is simple. Whichever team loses the toss at the start of a game pucks out the ball. It's so simple and look what it will avoid. Recall the throw-in between Waterford and Clare in Thurles in the replay! And that incident wasn't a lone swallow. Again and again you find referees delaying the throw-in for various reasons. They have the players lined up too early. They are waiting for the time to be right? They are revelling in their positions of power, fussing that everything is so-so, sending balletic gestures to their linesmen and umpires, rechecking their watches for the fourth time. And all the time the four midfield players are getting hyper and more hyper as the pep talk from the dressing room drums in their ears and the proximity of the enemy drives them to frenzy.
It could all be avoided by starting the game with a puck out. And, when I'm at it the throw-in at the sideline should also be ended for good. It does nobody any good and is conducive to injury. How can that be eliminated? By getting the linesman to make up his mind and decide who should get the puck instead of taking the easy option of a throw-in. Do you ever see a throw-in in soccer or rugby? Never! The decision is always made. Why should it be different in hurling or football?
Tipperary G.A.A. Yearbook 1999, p 64