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Ulster's top class hurlers can make huge impact if given the opportunity

 

By Declan Bogue

As a by-product of all the shifting structures in the GAA, the All-Ireland semi-finals in both hurling and football have been squeezed into one hectic, busy weekend, with champions Galway facing Clare tonight, before Cork and Limerick meet tomorrow.

It's been a recurring theme this year with hurling. Finding the right balance between competitive competitions has always been a delicate job in hurling, and some in the traditional counties could be forgiven for thinking at times there was too much time given over to agonising how to cater for the small fry, and not enough consideration in maximising the product at the top end.

With the Leinster and Munster Championships becoming two mini-leagues of five teams, it has driven gate receipts, interest and - many would hold - standards through the roof.

"Anyone can see that the structure of it has worked, has been brilliant. The games have been very exciting because you are getting to see the better teams playing more often," states Ulster Council's Provincial Hurling Development Officer Kevin Kelly.

"The one thing better than one good hurling match is two good hurling matches," states Antrim's joint-manager Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton.

"The hurling has been absolutely fantastic. The more you see Joe Canning or TJ Reid, the better."

In order to reach this point in 2017, there were 12 games played in the Leinster Championship and four in Munster.

The All-Ireland qualifier system took nine games, making it a total of 25 games prior to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

This year, the astonishing statistic is that the workload has almost doubled.

The Munster Championship took 21 games for Cork to claim their provincial title.

In Leinster, the figure was 22, with Galway and Kilkenny's final going to a replay. Add in the four games at the quarter-final stages and the figure is set at 47.

However, one unfortunate side-effect of all this wall-to-wall hurling excellence is that the competitions underneath have become entirely marginalised.

There is a certain irony in football pundits calling for Gaelic football to introduce tiered championships. Joe Brolly, a man who played county hurling for Derry, has been the keenest proponent.

A central plank of his argument is that the lower tiers would be afforded respect and granted coverage.

That he makes the argument on RTÉ, that have largely ignored an excellent Joe McDonagh Cup this year, failing to even mention results on occasion, is baffling.

"The thing about the McDonagh Cup, I would have loved to have been able to go to those games," explains Kelly.

"I would have loved to have been able to stream those games or be able to see them on YouTube. We, the general public, weren't given the chance to see that."

He continues: "I am telling you now that one of the best games I saw all year was the Christy Ring quarter-final between Derry and Down.

"Derry had to win by seven points in order to get through to the semi-final, because there were four teams in that group.

"And Derry turned round and beat Down by seven.

"It was a great game but, again, nobody got to see it.

"So whenever you see football people complaining that they don't want tiered structures, they don't want tier two football, they are right in a small way, because would you want to be playing in tier two when you are not in the public eye at all?"

As main host of the Lurig Bar in Cushendall, McNaughton sees the potential opportunities lost in terms of television and broadcast issues.

If an Antrim hurling game does not hold appeal in Galway, it will be appealing inside the competing county.

McNaughton offers a helpful suggestion.

"I think it's about time Croke Park ran their own TV station. Some form of station in this day and age where, if Antrim is playing, the Lurig Bar can see it. Like, I don't expect the whole of Ireland to be tuning in, but if Antrim are playing Carlow, people of Antrim and people of Carlow would want it," he states.

"There were good games in the Joe McDonagh Cup. The kids in Cushendall and other places could see Neil McManus giving an exhibition. The majority of them have never seen it."

The changing nature of media is something that can be embraced. Ladies football and camogie have benefitted in recent years from social media. Before, there was a certain level of rightful moaning that ladies' codes didn't receive enough media coverage. Instead of fighting for a few columns of a page in traditional media, they have concentrated resources on video clips, strong websites and live streaming of games, such as Slaughtneil's successful All-Ireland camogie final this year.

"I am only speaking as a bar owner," says McNaughton.

"I was able to stream Slaughtneil playing in the All-Ireland camogie final through the AIB stream on YouTube, but we couldn't stream any Antrim games and haven't been able to see Antrim on TV for years.

"I know why - RTÉ would have no interest, but the BBC is streaming matches in the Milk Cup where there is a man and a dog at them."

Kelly has further ideas. He believes that hurling have their structures almost there, but can't get on board that there are five distinct standards, requiring their own championship.

He says: "And if there is, you are having just four teams in one All-Ireland competition, which isn't much of a competition.

"You could amalgamate the Meagher, Rackard and Ring Cups and split it into a quarter-final stage. I am sure that if TG4 put their spin on it…

"There's an opportunity to cover these games in some way, but we are not doing it. No wonder tiered championships get no respect in football."

While Ulster counties occupy the lower reaches of hurling, there has been a lazy acceptance that there is little appetite for the game in the province.

The execution of the game's most intricate skills have been flowing downwards over the last decade. You are as likely to see successful sideline cuts sailing over the bar at Lory Meagher level as you are at Liam MacCarthy grade.

One day at the end of 2017, over 6,000 fans paid in to Owenbeg to watch Dunloy play Slaughtneil in the Ulster club semi-final.

That figure was questioned by many in attendance, with the gates flung open to cope with the demand. It went to show that when you have two serious teams, at a suitable venue, spectators will turn up.

"That game is the perfect example," says Kelly. "No matter what the official attendance was that day, we know it was closer to 10,000 than it was to anything.

"But the way Slaughtneil has played over the last two years, you cannot say there is no hurling in Derry. That Dunloy team might have come a year or two early, but if they are going to win an Antrim Championship soon, they will be coming back with some serious experience to go for an All-Ireland."

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