Kilkenny’s continuing dominance leaves the existing format of the All Ireland Hurling Championship in dire need of a revamp, writes Brian Carty.
In securing their coveted third Senior title in a row, a feat not achieved by any side since the 1970s, the Kilkenny side of 2008 have put their name in the record books as the greatest team of their generation, if not the greatest ever.
Add to that the current crop on the conveyor belt of young talent coming through, combined with the counties unrivalled hurling heritage and the wisdom of Brian Cody, it is hard to see an end to the Cats’ current domination.
However, certain critics would be of the opinion that Kilkenny’s success is to the detriment of modern competitive hurling, and that their dominance makes the championship stale and predictable. Taking a look at their record at senior level this year, it is hard to argue otherwise.
Their average winning margin throughout the championship was a whopping 17 points, with Eoin Kelly’s late consolation goal for Waterford in the All-Ireland final the only one three-pointer they conceded all year.
While this makes for awe-inspiring viewing for Kilkenny fans, it also gives cynics reason to believe that the current hurling championship format is dead and in desperate need of restructure.
Certainly, from a neutral viewpoint, Kilkenny’s dominance of senior hurling is making the fastest field game in the world almost boring, and certainly predictable, certainly compared to the big-ball code.
Although this year’s All Ireland contained familiar names, no All-Ireland football final has ever been won by a margin such as 23 points.
33 teams compete in the football championship as opposed to twelve in hurling, with each championship year turning up at least one surprise packet. People would argue that Kerry are the dominant team at the moment, but since 1990, the likes of Donegal, Tyrone and Armagh have tasted All-Ireland glory for the first time in their history, while the qualifier format has conjured up some fairytales also.
It is clear that, while hurling is an artistic sport that is enjoyable to watch, the current senior championship is in desperate need for change.
However, it is hard to see a viable alternative to the current format. Perhaps the inclusion of Galway and Antrim into the Leinster championship would freshen things up and make that province all the more competitive, whilst giving both teams the chance of a competitive match in the early summer.
However, ardent Galway hurling fans are completely opposed to such a suggestion, citing the fact that they are a Connacht team, not a Leinster one, meaning that at the moment, such a motion appears more a dream than a reality.
The fact that only twelve teams play hurling at senior inter-county level is an issue to be looked at. It is farcical to think that players from the likes of Westmeath and Derry shouldn’t be allowed a crack at glory, or a least possible upset, just because they are perceived as a weak hurling county.
This is in stark contrast to the football model, where the likes of Waterford and Leitrim continue to compete despite the fact they are as likely to win the All-Ireland as a greyhound is to win the Aintree Grand National.
Why not increase the number of teams competing from twelve to sixteen, and have a Champions League- style group format, consisting of four groups of four, with the top two from each group qualifying for the quarter-finals ieand the bottom two qualifying for the ‘B’ championship?
This would guarantee each team at least three worthwhile matches and would also allow the possible opportunity for an underdog to play Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary in a match they thought they may never play.
Fanatics of the Munster hurling championship may argue that this would take away from the excitement and unpredictability that it brings, but in reality are the likes of Ken McGrath and Paul Flynn, and those involved with the Tipperary panel this year, really going to cherish a Munster medal while the elusive All-Ireland medal continues a to be bridge too far?
In addition, provincial glory means less now than ever before with the introduction of the back-door system. It is hard to propose any great change to the system that would even things out and that wouldn’t invoke controversy.
The plain truth is that Kilkenny have set the standard and it is up to other counties to catch up. The fact that they concentrate solely on the small ball is perhaps a solid reason as to why they have become so dominant in the sport, but it is more than that.
Such is the competition for places on the team that the players know that they have to perform consistently or they will be dropped. As a result, it is difficult to foresee a time when Kilkenny will cease to be competitive at the business end of the Championship season regardless of what changes are made to the format.