Club players of Ireland, these are your halcyon days. The stage is yours, the summer is yours and in most cases you can set your watch by your fixtures list.
You have it so good that Wexford selector and Bruff clubman Seoirse Bulfin had a point last week when he asked where was the positivity from the Club Players Association (CPA).
There are snags, of course. Teams knocked out of a championship in the space of six days as was the case in Waterford and Wexford is not healthy but in this abbreviated season of seasons there are going to be fall guys and the experiences thus far have largely been positive.
However, the CPA know what we’re experiencing right now is not reality. There is nothing to suggest from Croke Park that 2021 won’t revert to what was supposed to happen this year. September’s Special Congress, which was to focus on fixtures, has likely been parked for 2020. GAA director general Tom Ryan more or less confirmed the third year of the Super 8 along with the Tailteann Cup will take place next summer.
But they also know there is an opportunity here. Club players have rarely had it better and they have been articulating that. Going by the conversations we have had with them these last few weeks both on and off the record, they could get used to this, championship football and hurling when the evenings are still long and the ball is hopping off the ground.
What seems most important to them is the absolute certainty provided by the revised fixtures lists. From Austin Stacks’ Kieran Donaghy bemoaning the GAA’s inability to put forward a definitive list until now to Jamie Burns in St Finbarr’s, who as a dual player appreciates that he can plan ahead properly to Loughmore-Castleiney chairman Eugene Stapleton, who likes that the scheduling of their games aren’t dictated by Tipperary’s fortunes, club people are enjoying themselves.
The iron is most definitely hot hence why the CPA struck with that strongly-worded statement last week.
“The GAA is currently in the middle of a very dangerous atmosphere which needs to be addressed immediately and certainly in advance of 2021,” they warned. “If a satisfactory set of fixtures cannot be agreed then this totally unnecessary and poisonous atmosphere will further escalate and damage our Association even further.”
To go back to the way it was would be a massive letdown for club players. That’s not to say what is happening now can be replicated or that it is even preferable.
Club players enjoy downtime in summer. Giving up some of it so they are able to holiday in the best weather as much as compete in it is not something they would mind.
The shorter season, already supported by inter-county players, also seems to find favour in the club scene where older players have been attracted by the truncated pre-season and steady flow of games.
In his late 30s, Donaghy admits the condensed nature of the 2020 club season was part of what convinced him to line out once more for Stacks’ seniors.
At the age of 43, Dan Shanahan has begun his 28th season for Lismore. Now 39, John Mullane came out of club retirement eight years ago to tog out for De La Salle’s junior B team.
Shanahan doesn’t intend stopping any time soon but the snappy schedule of the Waterford championship period would have appealed to him as it would have Mullane to dust off his hurley and helmet.
If the inter-county season is too long, which it is, then the club season leaves players waiting around too long. If the pandemic has offered up a positive, it has hopefully made GAA authorities appreciate that keeping club players occupied and delivering them certainty is essential.
Speaking to this newspaper last month, GAA sage and Kerry’s long-time Central Council delegate Gerald McKenna nailed the issue with the Super 8s. “We increased the number of games and yet at the same time we squeezed the amount of time in which they were to be played. Now, you could either do one or the other but you couldn’t do both at the same time because in doing that you were affecting the amount of time that was available for the club scene.”
To optimise the experience for clubs, the Super 8s must be jettisoned and there has to be more synchronicity in the inter-county season, that is more counties exiting the championship at the same time while the gap between the bulk of counties going out and the finalists is reduced.
That there is almost full three months between the first teams being knocked out and the All-Ireland final feels sinful.
The summer must be shared. It is most ironic that playing Gaelic games has become more attractive because of a highly contagious virus. Anyone believing otherwise is out of touch.
Weekend three of the GAA’s Project Restart and already there are casualties, three of the 16 out of the Waterford senior hurling championship — Ballysaggart, Clonea and Tallow — and three of the 12 teams exiting the Wexford SHC — Cloughbawn, Fethard and Rathnure.
At least there is no relegation in either but after Ballysaggart’s heavy defeat to Abbeyside on Saturday it will be 45 days before Stephen and Kieran Bennett can train again with Waterford. Stephen was carrying an injury in that game and another county panelist, Thomas Ryan, was forced off as Tallow bowed out so it could provide some welcome respite.
In Wexford, the break will give Rapparees’ Liam Ryan time to recover from his broken foot but his clubmate Kevin Foley is left waiting until September 14, the official start date for inter-county collective training, as is Fethard’s Michael Dwyer.
With the senior quarter-finals taking place in Wexford next weekend, several more inter-county players will be without hurling although many will soon be diverting their attention to the football club championship. The split season put forward by Wexford and Waterford affords dual players the chance to concentrate on both codes whereas because of the alternate system some in Cork have felt compelled to focus on one code.
What’s to stop those county hurlers at a loose end until September 14 meeting up for a few pucks? Nothing, you might think, but then it’s not that simple. Collective training is defined as “where one or more player(s) is/are required to be at a specific place at a specific time on a specific date.” A case of damned if they do and damned if they don’t?
Cork’s blue riband hurling competition has been made leaner and meaner but nobody should be expecting fireworks just yet.
The gulf in class between Glen Rovers and St Finbarrs on Saturday evening was hardly an advertisement for the new premier senior championship but the format will need time to bed down.
Besides, in a hectic schedule the demands of being a dual club are that more acute for the Barrs. It should also be taken into account that in the five other PSHC clashes over the weekend, the average winning/losing margin was just 2.6 points.
It didn’t help that also on national TV the night before, Ballyhale Shamrocks and Tullaroan played out a captivating game. However, the similarly sized 12-club Kilkenny senior championship is long established.
In the next two or three seasons, the benefits of stratifying the Cork championships will be reaped. Consider how ready the senior A winners will be for premier senior in 2021 when it boast teams who have contested the last three All-Ireland intermediate finals, 2017-18 winners Kanturk, Charleville, and Fr O’Neills who were so unlucky not to beat Tullaroan in the All-Ireland intermediate club final in January.
With that amount of potential challenging to push up into premier senior, it stands to reason that the competitiveness will improve.
A little help from referees in easing up on the whistle wouldn’t go astray either but starting with Imokilly having their work cut out for them in doing the four in a row, the standard in Cork club hurling should soon be on the rise.