Forget Wild Geese And Fenway, Let's Promote Hurling At Home
Limerick's remarkable 2018 season came to an end last night with a 38-30 win over Cork in an the final of the Fenway Classic in a sparsely attended stadium.
Wexford and defending champions Clare also enjoyed an end of season trip to Boston while Galway and Kilkenny last week played in the Wild Geese game in Sydney.
The value of sponsor income (from airlines Etihad and Aer Lingus) to the GPA is clear but less clear is whether these games hold any value in promoting the national game of hurling.
The Wild Geese game at least had the backdrop of an Irish festival in Australia but the 'Super 11' format played at Fenway was more akin to Lacrosse than hurling.
Trying to sell that game to an American audience is all the more curious after hurling stole the public's attention Sunday after Sunday this year, culminating in Limerick lifting the Liam McCarthy Cup for the first time since 1973.
A quick browse of Americans watching hurling reaction videos on YouTube shows that hurling doesn't need to be bastardised to capture the imagination abroad but more worryingly there's little energy or will to grow hurling outside the traditional strongholds here at home.
Kilkenny v Galway in front of nearly empty stands in Sydney last week / INPHO/David Neilson
Last week Carlow's Paul Coady questioned whether the emphasis should be on helping hurling flourish on new ground in Ireland rather than promoting sponsor driven exhibition games abroad.
“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?
“The Liam MacCarthy is brilliant. I would have said there were seven teams that could have won an All-Ireland. I think Wexford and Dublin with the help of financial resources and good coaching and good development officers have bridged that gap in probably the last seven, eight years.
“Are the GAA going to forever stick at that or try to bridge the gap, the six teams in the Joe McDonagh, try to get them up to a higher level, and then try to get the Christy Ring level up? I think they’re happy just to have those nine and let the other counties suffer and have the odd day in the sunshine.”
Carlow's Paul Coady / INPHO/Donall Farmer
A crowd of around only 12,000 people in Boston was a clear sign that the Super 11s format is failing to capture the imagination. Few would begrudge the players of Wexford, Cork, Clare and Limerick a trip stateside at the end of the season but the traditional game of hurling is a vastly superior product.
Former Offaly and Ireland shinty manager Joe Dooley summed up the feeling among many watching the games on TG4 last night.
Is it just me or does anyone else think that the hurling in Fenway is harmless. Small pitch, no points, short passing, no intensity, poor attendance Like a lacklustre training game. @gaelicplayers @RTEgaa #FenwayHurling @officialgaa— Joe Dooley (@DooleyJoe) November 18, 2018
While those in Boston were being sold a pup, thankfully there were entertaining games in the Club Championships.
Ballygunner landed their first Munster Senior Hurling title in 17-years with an impressive win over Na Piarsaigh at Semple Stadium while Ballyboden St Enda's and Coolderry played a classic in the Leinster semis at Parnell Park with the Dublin champions eventually prevailing by 5-28 to 5-25 after two period of extra-time.
Belfast-native Micky McCullough is the coach of the Ballyboden team that has come through extra-time battles with Clonkill and Coolderry to reach their first Leinster Club Senior Hurling Final since 2007.
In an interview with Kieran Shannon in the Examiner last week McCullough lamented the current plight of the game in the northern province.
“Unless Antrim win the McDonagh Cup or win in the boardroom again, there’s never going to be an Ulster person who can play in the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
“That’s a fact. And that’s a scandal. That in our national association, founded by our forefathers to keep our Irish tradition alive, and in the province where nobody has suffered more to keep that Irish tradition alive, we can’t f***ing play or aspire to play at the top level in our national sport?”
The Saffrons narrowly retained their McDonagh Cup status this summer by defeating Christy Ring winners Kildare in a playoff just days after the Lilywhites landed the third grade title at Croke Park.
Denied automatic promotion despite winning a competition, Kildare saw their manager Joe Quaid leave to take over from Michael Ryan at beaten McDonagh Cup finalists Westmeath.
Former Westmeath boss Michael Ryan / INPHO/Tommy Grealy
Last summer former Waterford boss Ryan highlighted the lack of coverage for the McDonagh Cup (a fear held by many counties opposed to a 'B' Championship in gaelic football.
“Some of the blame goes to RTE. At the end of the day, they didn't even put up the scores some weeks. Maybe they don't have enough cameras and reporters to go around, surely it costs nothing to throw the results on screen, yet there were some weeks in which they didn't even throw the results on screen. It shouldn't have happened. Each and every team down there are working just as hard as everybody else.
“We are all doing our four or five nights a week, we are doing our gym sessions, so everybody is putting it in. From a spectator point of view, the reaction from the people at the games has been very good. The standard has been decent, the commitment has been total and it is well worth showing.
“Maybe there should have been some kind of deal done with TG4 to show it. It's something that needs to be looked at going forward. We can probably forgive it because it's the first year of the competition, but it needs to be looked at.”
Consistency remains completely lacking in terms of promotion and relegation across hurling's inter-county Championships.
While Kildare remain in the Christy Ring Cup, McDonagh Cup winners Carlow progress into a Leinster round-robin group where they're overwhelming favourites to be relegated again.
While it was a positive 2018 for the Scallion Aters, who also won Division Two A of the League, they'll compete in a province where the gap continues to grow between the established and developing counties.
Offaly, a traditional power in the 80s and 90s before a sharp decline in the last 15-years, join Laois and Westmeath in being locked out of their provincial championship where a team from outside it, Galway, are the defending champions.
While a yo-yo from Leinster and Joe McDonagh Cup seems inevitable in the coming years, the Munster Senior Hurling Championship sides are protected from the threat of making a drop from the top table.
Munster hurling produced some of the best games across either code last summer and all five sides are viable All-Ireland contenders in summer 2019 but it's clearly unfair that the threat of relegation looms in Leinster while it's very unlikely that Kerry would win a playoff against one of their provincial rivals should the Kingdom be victorious in the McDonagh Cup.
The 2019 All-Ireland Championship is perhaps the most wide-open and eagerly anticipated in a generation but an apathy toward counties outside the elite ensure that the game is likely to continue to struggle north of Mullingar.