‘Nothing beats being there’ was the upbeat, hard-sell message that rang out last week at the launch in the Titanic Building of the Ulster Senior Football Championship, and the same mantra was to the fore at the launch of the hurling and Camogie Championships at the Queen’s Pavillion.
Speaking at the event, Ulster GAA President Aoghan Farrell laid down a significant warning to those that criticise the format or the number of teams in the senior hurling Championship.
This year, the competition has been significantly streamlined with only four counties competing; Antrim the holders, beaten finalists Armagh, Derry and Down.
In 2011, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan all competed, but Cavan did not enter, having experienced difficulties and heavy defeats during their National League campaign. Touching on that issue, Farrell said: “Four years ago, the Championship changed, and we had nine counties involved for the first time ever.
“The counties that came in at the early stages; Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Donegal had fantastic games and we certainly enjoyed those encounters. It was, and remains part of a great success story.”
Farrell continued: “The difficulty was that when those counties emerged to face what were and still are the powerhouses of Ulster hurling — particularly Derry, Down and Antrim, the scorelines and the beatings that some of them received, did knock some of those counties back quite a bit.”
Earlier this week, Antrim captain DD Quinn said that he felt the Ulster Championship should be inclusive of all Ulster counties, and also London who previously competed.
“It’s unfortunate that Ulster hurling isn’t as strong but, in the Ulster competition, some of the so-called weaker counties can try and play in it and see how they get on,” said Quinn. “Ulster hurling isn’t as bad as people make out,” he continued. “And lads from those counties put in as much effort and deserve their day out as much as the rest of us.”
Pointing to the restructuring of Ulster hurling, with considerably more emphasis placed on securing a more consistent club fixtures programme through the Táin league, Farrell explained: “Ongoing development did take place, and this year we are now part of what is for the first time ever, a fully-co-ordinated fixture list for hurling counties.
“This is the first year we have had it co-ordinated all across the province of Ulster and extending into Connacht and Leinster.”
He continued: “We noticed that quite simply for a lot of Ulster counties, there wasn't enough
games. And quality can never come, without quantity. The quality has been greatly increased through the Táin league.”
Although there are now only four teams competing for the Ulster Championship, the format is slightly skewed, with Derry and Armagh battling it out for a place to meet Down in the semi-final.
Antrim get a bye to the final, and also compete in the Leinster Championship. That imbalance wasn’t something Farrell was going to avoid as he addressed the matter.
“Antrim go straight to the final and rightly so. They are the one county, of all our nine, who can win the Liam MacCarthy Cup.” he said. “Some people will say that won't happen or it will never happen, but in GAA you should always be ambitious. They are certainly the only county who are allowed to take part in the full competition and we are delighted they do because other counties look to Antrim's standards. They continue to set the standards.”
Finishing on a positive note, Farrell concluded: “We can have opinions about how we do certain matters, but there are facts that we cannot ignore or disagree upon.
“The facts are we now have more hurling clubs in Ulster than ever. A much bigger fact is that we have more games than ever. There are far more games being played in our clubs than ever before. I would contest that hurling standards across Ulster are rising.”