How strategic thinking could solve provincial Rubik’s Cube

So, club month is over. Welcome to hurling month, just as June will be as well.

If football is your game, or you at least enjoy watching its best exponents as much as you do Patrick Horgan and TJ Reid, then, sorry, you’re basically going to have to wait until July.

While Dublin’s five-in-a-row bid may be the biggest storyline in all of the GAA, the next time you’ll see Jim Gavin’s squad live on your TV screen will be June 23, Leinster final day, a full 14 weeks since they last featured on a live broadcast.

That previous time you’d have had the chance to see them live on the box was back the St Patrick’s weekend, when Tyrone ambushed them in Croke Park, though chances are you only caught glimpses of it, as it was on eir while Kerry-Mayo was simultaneously being shown on RTÉ that Saturday night.

It’s hard to think of another sport or organisation on the planet that would allow its most outstanding and marketable team go over three months in-season without at least one of its games being shown live on some network.

Then again, this is the GAA, the Rubik’s Cube of sport. A twist or turn here to try to solve the puzzle and it has a knock-on effect elsewhere.

In completing and nailing one face – by finally designing an optimal and compelling way to run its two leading provincial hurling championships – the GAA has left with us virtually no live football to watch on the box for the first two months of the summer.

When you combine RTÉ’s schedule for the championship – announced yesterday – along with Sky Sports’, only three football games will be televised live prior to the provincial finals. Hurling, in contrast, will have 13.

Nine of Munster’s 10 round-robin hurling championship games will be shown live — and the 10th only loses out because it will be played at the same time as the other final round-robin game in the province.

The first seven Sundays of the summer will feature not a single live football game on RTÉ. Instead they’re exclusively hurling. 

The only football game they’re committed to showing live during that time is a Saturday evening game from Ulster, most likely a provincial semi-final between Donegal and Tyrone. 

A Leinster semi-final may yet feature, but that could lose out to another hurling game as well.

In other words, prior to the provincial finals, 65% of all Liam MacCarthy Cup games will definitely be shown live on TV, but just 12% of all provincial football games.

This, naturally, is no criticism of RTÉ or Sky — both broadcasters have rightly opted for the more attractive programme of games — but a damning indictment and reflection of the current appeal and state of the provincial football championships (Both channels in the past have covered their share of the Dubs and Kerry steamrolling feeble provincial opposition in the early rounds).

Sure there will be an upset or a cracker somewhere in the big ball in those early weeks and months, one that you’ll wish that had been shown live and which Des & Co may even open with on the Sunday night programme.

But the paltry amount of football on the TV schedule represents perfectly the paltry appeal of the provincial championships as currently constituted.

Something has to change. And according to John Horan, the current president, something will.

In a revealing interview with the Sunday Mail’s Philip Lanigan, Horan stated a two-tier championship which he has publicly favoured for some time could be up and running as early as next summer.

The weekend before last, Division Three and Four counties were summoned to Croke Park about the prospect of an intermediate All-Ireland championship. 

They were presented with two proposals — one where teams could still compete in the Sam Maguire qualifiers and one where they could not. 

Horan’s preference would be for the latter but either way one of them is likely to be put forward to a Special Congress convened in the autumn.

What was telling about Horan’s comments — and worrying for the Club Players Association and their preference for a blank-canvas approach — was how some competitions and blocks in the calendar seem out of bounds, untouchable.

Although he told Lanigan that he was still committed to honouring his promise to the CPA of appointing a fixtures group some time this summer, the remit of that group seems likely to be heavily constrained.

In comments carried in this paper yesterday, Horan noted that the clubs were hardly looking for the months of February and March, that those two months were “for the national league”. 

He also seemed to indicate that there would be no club window during the summer, as every manager, club or county, would want a considerable “run-in period”.

The notion of the provincial football championships being run on a round-robin basis and played in February and March didn’t seem to occur to him. 

That a shift could reduce the number of inter-county games and competitions, not increase them, yet still enhance and improve the overall state of the game. 

In his eyes, the provincial championships will remain in the summer and to detach them completely from the All-Ireland series itself would negatively impact on the club.

He was also quite bolshie in his comments regarding the CPA. 

“I’m not going to conduct megaphone diplomacy with any group,” he told Lanigan. “There has been a lot in the media in the last month from the CPA. I’m not reacting to it.”

As if the CPA wouldn’t be inundated with media requests in what was supposedly a designated club month. 

Or they hadn’t been diplomatic and respectful towards Horan in most of those interviews at the start of the month before their frustration levels grew, due to what they consider an unnecessary impasse from headquarters. 

Or as if that fixtures group couldn’t have already been in place before April to avoid any antagonism or spotlight from the CPA.

The CPA won’t be that bothered by such a swipe, just as they moved on from Horan’s bit of megaphone interaction with them at Congress back in February. 

What they will be more concerned about though is that Horan is talking about a Special Congress for this autumn to have a two-tier football championship in place for 2020, and yet reiterating to Lanigan that the Super 8s in football and current provincial format in hurling was a three-year trial. 

Only then adding, “We have to come with proposals next February for Congress [2020] as to what happens for 2021 — whether we go back to the old [structure], continue with the new, or bring an alternative.”

Mathematically as well as logically, that doesn’t add up. 

By next February, the current hurling format and the Super 8s will have only been after Year Two of their three-year trial. 

And couldn’t a two-tier championship have already been approved by then? And will the fixtures group he’s establishing be the ones conducting that review of the current three-year trial in hurling and football?

The cube continues to be rotated in a scrambled, haphazard fashion.

But the thing about the Rubik is that with a bit of strategic thinking, it can be resolved. 

With all sides and faces looking the part. 

Having a game in May or early June that the Dubs might be pushed — and shown live — in shouldn’t be a stretch.

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