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Comment: Hurling in Ulster must sink or swim

By Declan Bogue

A couple of weeks ago, the Antrim hurlers and management were finishing their post-match meal after winning the Conor McGurk Cup when they learned that they would not be allowed to defend their Ulster Hurling Championship title.

The decision itself had been arrived at during the November meeting of the Ulster Council Competitions Control Committee, at which every county is represented. While it is not surprising that the views of major stakeholders in competitions - the players - were not sought, there is a certain logic to this development.

When Brian McAvoy took over as Ulster Council Secretary just over a year ago, he was determined to leave his stamp on things. He has proved himself a man of action.

Slash! There goes the Ulster Senior Championship. Wallop! Out goes the Minor Championship. Bang! That's the sound of the door closing on the Under-21 Championship.

In his address to the Ulster AGM this Saturday, McAvoy outlines the reasons with logic.

"While the Ulster Hurling Championships have a special place in all of our hearts the decision was taken in the best interests of hurling in Ulster," he notes.

"In 2017 the Ulster Senior Hurling Championship was moved to an April slot at the behest of the counties but it failed to capture the imagination of either the players or the public, with a combined attendance of just around 1,000 people at its three games."

The practice of minors and under-21s gaining passage to an All-Ireland semi-final has been woefully outdated. Last year Antrim minors lost heavily to Dublin at the semi-final stage, and at under-21 level Derry were beaten by 52 points by Kilkenny. There is no point continuing. What the Ulster Council have done here is an act of supreme mercy.

The newly-created Tier 2 competition, named after former GAA President and All-Ireland winning Galway hurler Joe McDonagh, will involve Antrim against Carlow, Meath, Westmeath, Kerry, Laois and the third placed teams in the round-robin five team leagues in Munster and Leinster, which is the format of the Liam MacCarthy Cup now.

Running from May to July, it's impossible to discern any difference between the Joe McDonagh Cup and last year's Christy Ring Cup. But the inclusion of Liam MacCarthy-standard teams, along with the carrot of qualifying for the Liam MacCarthy the year after, offers a clear pathway to regular games at a higher level.

Right now, we must see it as a positive development.

Where we must part company with their thinking is the scrapping of the senior competition.

Attendance figures were quoted as a means to back up the argument. That around 1,000 made it to these games last year is significant.

McAvoy himself attended the Armagh v Down game at Inniskeen.

After Down were defeated, stand-in manager Gary Savage, a Down hurling diehard if ever there was one, almost choked on his words as he outlined their problems in 2017: "At the start of the year we had 28 players. We came here today with 19 or 20 players. A lot of boys just don't commit. The county is not good enough for them, or whatever.

"It's one of the reasons we came back, me and Marty (Mallon), we wanted to give the thing a bit of a lift, to win something or do something. But it has nearly turned around on us the wrong way."

Somewhere along the way, Ulster hurling has become deeply unfashionable. That does not mean there is no appetite for top-quality hurling, as evidenced by the 6,142 that turned up to watch Slaughtneil and Dunloy in the Ulster club.

The Championship is suspended for three years. What will change in the meantime? How do you promote a game by taking away what is meant to be the showpiece occasion in the province?

But if you take the overall health of Ulster hurling now, from where it was 20 years ago, it makes for grim analysis.

Antrim have slipped badly over the last five years, albeit there are signs of standards rising again.

Expectations of Down hurling is as low as it's been in 40 years.

There are a host of counties that have plateaued such as Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh.

Cavan are only going back into the leagues now after pulling out in 2011. Fermanagh are down to one club.

Someone, somewhere, should be held accountable for this. Clubs have withered on the vine and volunteers have become disillusioned, over-burned by work.

Brian McAvoy has shown in his first 12 months that he backs up his talk with action.

Time for the former Down Hurling Committee Chairman to get to the root of hurling's ills.

Belfast Telegraph

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