At this stage, it’s well known that the GAA are intent on changing the scheduling of the Super 8 in 2020. As the three-year experimental phase draws to a close, it’s last-chance saloon for the All-Ireland quarter-final round-robin phase.
Poor crowds at Dublin games and dead rubbers have prompted the powers-that-be to think a little outside the box. The four Round 1 winners facing against one another and the losers doing the same in Round 2 at neutral venues is a positive move but what happens if there are no winners from that opening weekend? It seems that a draw will be required to determine the Round 2 fixtures if that scenario arises.
Such uncertainty could have been avoided if the GAA had simply done away with the table-based format: play the Round 1 matches to a result, the Round 1 winners face off in Round 2A for two All-Ireland semi-final spots and the Round 1 losers take on each other to win through to Round 3 against the Round 2A losers for the final two semi-final places. No dead rubbers, no score difference, not as elitist.
That system may be what the GAA ends up with but, like the second tier championship, Super 8 is a work in progress. And like this latest Super 8, there is small print attached to inter-county Gaelic football’s T2. There could be as few as seven counties in Tier 2 from 2021. Unlikely but possible if all the provincial finals comprise Division 3 and 4 teams.
Under the new structure, there will always be a minimum of 16 counties (the Division 1 and 2 teams) in the Sam Maguire Cup qualifiers but the number competing in the second tier can’t be confirmed until the provincial final line-ups are known. The GAA have built in the possibility of fewer than 16 teams playing in T2 — byes will take place.
On Saturday, GAA president John Horan tried to clarify the situation:
Conversely, there could be as many as 25 counties in Tier 1 from 2021. Again, most unlikely but were eight counties from Division 3 and 4 to qualify for the four provincial finals and the previous year’s Tier 2 competition winners while remaining in Division 3 or 4 didn’t, then the GAA would have no choice but to accommodate them all in the qualifiers.
It’s more reasonable to suggest there will be seasons where two or three Division 3 or 4 counties make their respective provincial finals — in 2016, Tipperary (seventh in Division 3) and Westmeath (relegated to Division 4) made the Munster and Leinster showdowns. A preliminary round would be arranged to accommodate the extra teams.
The Tier 2 final will take place in July. It is hoped by the likes of former GAA president Nickey Brennan that, in time, the secondary championships in football and hurling will be played as the curtain-raisers to the Sam Maguire and Liam MacCarthy Cup finals.
The difficulty with that, as Horan pointed out following Saturday’s Special Congress, is by prolonging T2 to the end of August, it would affect the club schedules of the T2 teams. At the same time, if the claims are true that the fixtures review committee are looking at an end-of-July finish for the All-Ireland senior championships, then there would be no issue.
But using this season as an example, the final would take place in the second last weekend of July, coinciding with the second round of the Super 8, and the semi-finals in the first or second weekend of July, the same as the second round of the qualifiers.
There will be northern and southern conferences in Tier 2. Instead of an open draw for the quarter-finals, the Central Competitions Control Committee will determine how the counties fall into which bracket.
Obviously, the identity of two teams will change as a result of promotion but they could be grouped as follows: Southern — Carlow, Cork, Limerick, London, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, Wicklow; and Northern — Antrim, Derry, Down, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Offaly, and Sligo.
There will be five-week breaks for several Division 3 and 4 counties between provincial and Tier 2 championships. In which time it will be hoped (if not anticipated) that the Division 3 and 4 counties schedule club championship matches.
However, sustaining the interest of players for such a longer period going into a secondary competition is sure to be a difficult task. Failing to bridge that gap was part of the reason the Tommy Murphy Cup collapsed and while there are safeguards in place now to help ensure players stick around it remains to be seen if they are willing to line out.
GAA president John Horan said it was surprising that there wasn’t more debate on the advanced mark. We would go further and say frightening. We’re not just talking about how referees are going to be put under more pressure.
As a colleague from another newspaper highlighted to us, it said plenty that the only delegate outside of the proposer to speak was a former Croke Park official, ex-national match officials manager Pat Doherty who is now Westmeath’s head of operations. Doherty raised the issue of the additional pressure this is going to be put on referees.
As well as the burden it puts on referees, the new 15 seconds allowed to kick a mark will slow down the game, it is open to not being played in the spirit of the rule with lateral 20-metre kicks and it is yet another move towards Australian Rules.
At a time when there are record numbers of Gaelic footballers at AFL clubs, it’s startling that such a rule change would be endorsed without a word of discontent being uttered at Special Congress. Whether it’s coincidental or not, there hasn’t been an International Rules series in two years, something that former GAA director general Páraic Duffy supported for helping to foster good relations between the two sports bodies.
You could be flippant and argue what’s the need when Gaelic football is being that very hybrid sport. But you could be practical too and suggest it’s only a matter of time before the AFL set themselves up here. Going back to Ricky Nixon’s time, Australian Rules figures have had scouts in Ireland but now that Gaelic football has moved closer to being its feeder sport, the case for permanent AFL residence has been strengthened.
At Saturday’s Special Congress, Antrim could be considered the conscience of the GAA. Fooled once about the profile promised for the Joe McDonagh Cup, they warned of being fooled again by the glitz and glamour guaranteed for the second tier football championship.
They also spoke about the sin bin and how it is open to abuse because the 10 minutes the player is off the pitch doesn’t stop. In response to that, standing playing rules committee chairman David Hassan insisted they had not come across any such cynicism in the National Football League games that they studied. Hassan has done some good work for the GAA but we wonder if he was watching the matches which we were earlier this year.
For instance, in the opening Division 1 clash between Monaghan and All-Ireland champions Dublin in Clones, the All-Ireland champions played keep ball and were booed by the home support during the time John Small and Robert McDaid were off the field. After giving up a free, Jonny Cooper wouldn’t let go of the ball knowing it would waste valuable seconds.
The fact is the sin bin can be manipulated by the team who has been hindered by it as the team who supposedly benefits from it.
“Unintended consequences arrive and you have to go back and readdress the issues,” said GAA president John Horan about the sin bin not working as it should. “If they arise, I’m quite sure we go back and deal with it.”