You wouldn’t want to be paranoid. Or you might think Tipperary were being punished for reaching an All-Ireland semi-final.
The GAA’s championship plan, released yesterday, disappointed me. There’s nothing in it for the lesser lights. And it also lessens the chances of a bolter like Tipp getting to an All-Ireland semi-final again. Overall, it seems a rather lopsided championship being proposed, one that turns normal competitive logic on its head.
I’d much prefer to see more games - a group stage with an open draw - earlier in the year, rather than at the last-eight stage. Give the likes of Clare and Tipp and Carlow and Leitrim - as well as your Kerrys and Dublins - three or four guaranteed games early in the season and whittle things down from there via knockout rounds.
But with this proposed format, you lose the beauty of knock-out football at the quarter-final stage and what do you gain in return?
Certainly, the lesser lights gain little. For many, it will still be two games and you’re out. They will still go through the provincial system and then have to set off through the qualifier rounds.
And if a Tipperary side somehow emerges from that jungle again, they are now 210 minutes away from a semi-final rather than 70. After a season like Tipp have had, you’d hate to see them reach this stage and then get beaten three times. It would take the gloss off everything they had done earlier in the year.
The argument is this structure will throw up more quality games between the bigger teams. But this year, we haven’t seen that much quality in any of the games, so are you just booking in more of the same?
From the GAA’s point of view, the more persuasive argument is finance. Last weekend’s double-header crowds were disappointing. The Tipp following isn’t going to have coffers overflowing for a semi-final. So more games are needed to guard against this kind of shortfall.
But it is likely there will be a meaningless dead rubber or two at the last-eight stage if the group format goes ahead, since there is no distinction between finishing third and fourth in your group.
There’s also been huge emphasis on Kerry’s route to a semi-final this year, taking in just Clare and Tipperary. But that’s some of the higher- profile counties that have failed, not just the system. It’s certainly not Clare or Tipp’s fault. This definitely favours the stronger counties. I’m sure the Kerry and Dublin players will welcome the extra games. As things stand, they can almost certainly factor them into their season’s schedule. A fuller game schedule will help with their training/game-time balance.
And I do accept the championship needs an overhaul. It has been crying out for a freshen up. But the GAA are restricted in what they can achieve by their reluctance to separate the provincial and All-Ireland championships. This is a delicate issue.
You could easily argue the provincial system is dead. To the likes of Kerry and Dublin, a provincial medal means little, at this stage. But to most counties, winning a province is the dream. They put more emphasis on their provincial campaign than their qualifier route, so you can never close the door on that. We’d certainly hate to be denied the chance to win a Munster title in Tipp. But with this proposed structure, it almost gives the impression the competition starts proper at the quarter-final stage.
The big change would be the replacement of the All-Ireland quarter-final stage with two groups of four. They would contain the four provincial champions and the four round 4 qualifier winners, with each county playing three games each.
Each team would play one game at Croke Park and other two home and away. This creates the prospect of Dublin playing in Killarney, Tyrone in Castlebar and Mayo in Ballybofey. The top two from each group would progress to the semi-finals.
Home venues would be subject to approval by the Central Competitions Control Committee and would need to meet the criteria set down by the National Facilities/Health and Safety Committee.
Provincial championships would remain untouched.
Two teams tied on points at the end of the group stage would be separated by (i) result of the game between the sides (ii) highest score (iii) goals scored and (iv) a play-off.
‘Weaker’ counties rejected the notion of a ‘B’ C’ship after the provincial championships, which means 24 sides would be eliminated by the third week of July. Semi-finals would be played the same weekend.
Qualifiers would be largely the same, but, a Div 3 or 4 team drawn against a side from a higher tier in rounds 1, 2, and 3 would have home advantage. The current ‘A’ and ‘B’ format would also be discontinued.
Extra-time would be played in the event of a draw in ALL provincial and All-Ireland championship games. Only when teams are level after extra-time would a replay take place. Though not a part of the proposal, it was noted “there is clearly scope to further condense” the inter-county fixture schedule at provincial and All-Ireland level. A test schedule showed Aug 21 as a date for the All-Ireland hurling final.
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