Counties not spending their downtime wisely

Dublin need only a point on Sunday to seal a fifth straight Division 1 final appearance. 

Counties not spending their downtime wisely

Should they qualify, it will leave eight weeks until their Leinster quarter-final against Carlow or Wexford. In that time, there will be one round of club championship football in the capital to be played on Thursday and Friday, April 21. One. As has been the norm, the second round of the knockout format will only take place after the county’s interests in the All-Ireland are over.

Kerry have an outside chance of reaching a second successive league final but should their last league game come against Tyrone in Killarney next weekend they will have a barely bearable 10-week gap to their Munster semi-final, the same as it was in 2015 and one less than the break between league and championship in ‘14.

No draw has yet been made, no dates yet set but there are bound to be two or three rounds of club action which will help the intercounty players bridge an annual sojourn they readily admit is a killer. “It’s crazy,” said Paul Geaney in January. “Two seasons, the league season last year and then the championship season. It’s crazy but this year I don’t think it’s as bad.”

By now, he probably knows it is anything but an improvement and is pulling at his hair.

Beat Mayo, and Donegal could have as little as six weeks between a Division 1 final and their Ulster quarter-final against Antrim on May 21. Besides the couple of weeks prior to that game, the week of April 9 to 16 is also unavailable for county championship as Donegal have organised two fundraising challenge games in New York. As was the case last year, it is likely there will be one round of the club championship on the May Bank Holiday weekend and the rest will be held off until Donegal exit the All-Ireland SFC.

What is certain is that Roscommon’s league campaign concludes with this Sunday’s visit of Cavan to Hyde Park. They are the last team out in the championship against London or Leitrim on June 18. A break of 11 weeks, enough time will have passed to ensure there are no lingering thoughts of relegation. At the same time, any benefit of Division 1 football may have left them too. In that period, they could complete a senior county championship schedule but what would be the point when the winners don’t play a Connacht semi-final until November 12?

Everybody could, or at least should, have appreciated the reasons for getting rid of the Division 1 semi-finals. It provides more time for the clubs but that only works if counties intend using the cessation in competitive senior inter-county activity for the good of the club. Obviously, in the case of Dublin and, to a lesser extent, Donegal, that doesn’t apply.

B

y delaying the four divisional finals until the end of April, the semi-finals at least brought inter-county players closer to the championship. But now the relevancy of the league, as excellent a competition as it is largely because the GAA have chosen to leave well enough alone these last 10 years by grading counties properly, is diminished as it is further cut off from the summer.

On Friday when we highlighted the potential gaps facing counties between league and championship on Twitter, the predominant reaction was indignation. Cavan footballer Alan O’Mara’s tweet summed up the frustration of the inter-county player: “December: pre-pre season; January: Pre-season; February-March: League; April-May: Pre-season; June-August: Six trainings for every one game.”

Incidentally, O’Mara’s adopted club St Oliver Plunkett’s/Eoghan Ruadh face 2016 All-Ireland champions Ballyboden St Enda’s in the first round of the Dublin SFC. Lose in Parnell Park on April 20 and their season is effectively over.

Former Kerry footballer Seán O’Sullivan said the gap between league and championship was “the only downside to being an inter-county player”. Westmeath’s John Connellan bemoaned: “This is the number one issue in GAA gloriously glossed over by the boiis in Congress.”

Joe Brolly slammed the gaps as “a ridiculous waste of time”. Tomás Ó Sé, who has long criticised the break in the inter-county season, called it “an absolute joke”.

O’Mara’s point about the existence of a pre-season in the middle of the year highlights the blatant dysfunctional state of the GAA calendar, just as ramming a league structure like the Super 8 over halfway into a championship.

Counties shouldn’t have to rip it up and start again. Part of the reason for pre-Christmas league starts being discontinued was because results in October and November varied so much with those upon the competition’s resumption in February and March. Now by driving more of a wedge between league and championship, the GAA threatens to diminish the importance of its only functioning senior inter-county football competition.

The league is more than good enough to be an accompanying competition to the championship never mind replace it. Certainly, it deserves to be more than a starter dish which then precedes what is effectively two months of championship pre-season.

GAA director general Páraic Duffy stresses that a gap must be maintained between the league and championship for club activity but when counties aren’t prepared to use that time for the intended purpose what is the point?

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Last-eight mismatch not Offaly’s fault

Waterford manager Derek McGrath seems to believe this hurling league structure is done for and let’s hope it is.

That a team which has lost to all of the three teams above them in Division 1B should merit a quarter-final spot ahead of the next two teams further up the ladder has been an infuriating aspect of this system these last four seasons.

Cork may have had a part to play in that as it wasn’t until they were demoted in 2013 that the quarter-finals were introduced and an arbitrary parity of esteem was established between the two groups.

Counties wanted more games and the quarter-finals provided them just as they gave Cork a chance to win the competition despite being relegated.

Obviously, there is a certain levelling between the two groups when Waterford and Clare have won the competition from 1B these last two seasons but it is evident that there is a cut-off point in the lower division.

Having said that, we repeat the point we’ve made before: they came into the last eight on the back of more comfortable games.

Division 1A teams live and die by the sword from the off.

It’s a sad fact when Clare co-manager Donal Moloney, ahead of next weekend’s relegation play-off against Dublin, isn’t too perturbed about going down.

“The thing about Division 1B, you get more opportunity to experiment. Whereas here, every game is cut-throat.”

Offaly seem to be getting the brunt of people’s angst for reaching or, to be more precise, scraping into the last eight but don’t blame them.

Instead, blame a system which allows such anomalies.

Cork shed the fear factor

So, Cork hurlers have backed up a performance and humbled those of us who predicted they would be in the relegation play-off. Waterford and Tipperary’s intentions may have been slightly different to Cork’s in the last two games.

For one, neither of their neighbours’ character was called into question. Nevertheless, both teams wanted to win their clashes with the Rebels and each came out on the wrong end of the result.

Not since 2015 had Cork put back-to-back wins together when they defeated Wexford and Clare in the qualifiers and the relief felt having avoided a second successive relegation play-off, a third in five seasons, can be deemed progress even if it is incremental by Cork standards.

The biggest positives from Sunday? Patrick Horgan’s ability to grab a chance to redeem himself with two hands. Luke Meade will continue to surprise defenders for some time yet, Darragh Fitzgibbon looks a find and Michael Cahalane is also a prospect.

They don’t seem to have the baggage more senior players have lumbered themselves with these last few seasons. The way in which Cork bounced back after Tipperary’s goal indicated as much.

Next Sunday presents a different prospect in that they face a team coming off a pretty hefty defeat. Limerick will be stinging, if not from the nature of that home loss to Galway then from the strong words of their manager John Kiely who called their display “abysmal”.

But for a team that had been dismissed, this is bonus territory and the freedom that will bring can galvanise them further.

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