Matthew Whelan has predictably fond memories of 2019. By the time he retired two years later, he had accumulated a record number of appearances for Laois but that season four years ago remains his favourite.
“I had other good and enjoyable years with Laois,” he says, “Good runs and great games, but to get that deep into the championship and the exposure we had to big games in Croke Park was great fun and the team really enjoyed it. The county was thirsty for success and wanted to have a team to follow in big games.”
An accomplished central defender and former captain, Whelan was a big influence on Laois’s campaign, which saw them become the only county so far to win the Joe McDonagh Cup and go on to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final.
“We never really had All-Ireland ambitions as a county,” he says, “Well, not for a long time anyway. And taking a county like Dublin and knocking them out when they were in such good form, after beating Galway to reach the preliminary quarter-final, was memorable.
“The game is so much faster in the summertime but with us getting plenty of hurling, we improved and our confidence grew. We were hurling without any inhibitions and just going for it and we were rewarded.”
That win over Dublin sent Laois into the All-Ireland quarter-final where they faced eventual champions Tipperary and competed well.
On Thursday, the GAA held an event to promote the tiered hurling championships – the McDonagh, Ring, Rackard and Lory Meagher Cups – amid focus on the McDonagh (Tier 2) teams and the ideal structure to develop the game in those mid-range counties, such as Antrim, Offaly, Laois, Westmeath and Carlow, who tend to yo-yo between the championship tiers.
There is no connection between league and championship in hurling, which can lead to the anomalous situation in which teams from outside Division One are eligible for the Tier 1 MacCarthy Cup, whereas some teams within the top division are graded Tier 2.
The winners of the McDonagh and beaten finalists have the opportunity to enter the MacCarthy Cup at preliminary quarter-final stage, against the third-placed teams in Munster and Leinster, scheduled for June 17th.
Whelan played in a variety of formats during his 15-year career, which began straight out of minor in 2007, but he’s a supporter of the current league structure
“For counties like Laois, the league is regarded as very important because it ensures that your standards are maintained and that the team attracts the interest of players to join the panel as well as managers when you are competing at that level. It creates that environment.”
There has been criticism of the present league structure, which is based on two groups of six teams, including a number of the mid-range counties. Critics say that this has the effect of insulating top counties from relegation, as it will always be one of those mid-range counties that gets demoted.
Whelan disagrees with this view.
“I don’t think that there’s a competitive gap between the teams at all times. I know there’s an argument that current league is just providing buffer zones for the top teams, who never have to face relegation but it would be worse if the Division One teams were just sealed away and counties like Laois, Offaly, Westmeath and Antrim never got to compete against them.
“The gap would just get bigger.”
The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) is currently deliberating on the league format with a view to recommending changes.
Whelan says that the demands of hurling are specific and different to football. Ideally, he would like to see an expanded schedule of league fixtures although he concedes that with the calendar pressures of the split season, that may not be possible.
“We lack numbers. It’s not like Gaelic football where you have four divisions and a lot of competition. It’s more you have team who are very competitive plus four or five teams lingering below that who you are trying to promote and develop.
“I think you have to offer an opportunity to counties at that level. My own personal preference would be to have all teams in a 12-strong division and play 11 games. I find you’re either playing challenge matches or Walsh Cup as a player and I’d get rid of the preseason competitions, which are little more than glorified challenge matches.
“That would give a lot more games and opportunities for players to expose themselves to that level because there is a big difference between a Walsh Cup and national league game, which is a far superior competition. I think players would react well to this opportunity.”
He remains optimistic about the prospects of teams who might struggle in a relentless fixtures calendar.
“I know in Laois that there’s a risk of getting into a league where games become monotonous but you do need a couple of developing counties interacting with top teams because if they get excluded, that does nothing for the promotion of the game in those counties.
“There’s no perfect solution but I would be afraid if the GAA did exclude those mid-ranked counties.”
Asked if he believed the McDonagh Cup is playing a constructive role, he is positive.
“It’s still serving a purpose. It’s giving teams a chance to win games and get to a knockout against a serious, serious team and see what you’re capable of.”