JACK ANDERSON: Levelling the round robin playing field in GAA championships

The GAA championships in both hurling and football have reached a crucial stage.

For some inter-county teams, their summer has ended prematurely; others are preparing for a provincial final. This is as good a time as any to review what has happened so far and flag issues that could be tweaked for next year, starting this week with hurling.

The new hurling structures, and particularly the round-robin nature of the Leinster and Munster hurling championships have been deemed a success. This has been helped by the dramatic evenness in Munster.

In hurling, there is a flaw in how the bottom team in Leinster is treated compared to its Munster counterpart.

In Leinster, it is mandated that the bottom team is relegated and replaced by the winner of the Joe McDonagh Cup. The bottom Munster team only comes into play if Kerry wins the Joe McDonagh and even then, there is a play-off.

The more equitable solution is that the bottom teams in both Munster and Leinster play off and the loser is replaced directly by the Joe McDonagh winner.

One factor that has not been picked up in the current arrangement can be highlighted by the fact that in Sunday’s final round-robin game in Munster, for example, Waterford do not have any relegation fears in their game against Cork.

A Waterford win would have a profound effect on who would make the Munster final. This is not to say that Waterford will not be trying on Sunday — far from it, in what might be Derek McGrath’s last match in charge. It is just to point out that the unequal way the bottom team in Munster is treated might in future skew who comes out on top.

Whatever system of relegation is put in place, there are some concerns that the winner of the Joe McDonagh will be markedly weaker and that this will result in some lopsided games. There are two possible solutions to this.

First, ensure that on the first year of promotion, the winner of the previous Joe McDonagh gets all their games at home. This might give them a better chance to adjust and, more importantly, be a great way of promoting hurling in that county.

Sports bodies around the world intervene in their competitions to ensure ‘competitive balance’. In professional leagues this is done by way of financial subsidies or priority draft picks. The GAA cannot do that but there is nothing stopping it from seeking creative ways of positively discriminating in favour of so-called weaker counties.

Imagine, if, for instance, Antrim won the Joe McDonagh and were guaranteed four home games at a newly developed Casement Park; what that could do for the promotion of the game there and particularly in Belfast which has been recently targeted for growth and funding by the GAA.

The second way to mitigate the impact of the winner of the Joe McDonagh being thrust directly into the Leinster or Munster championships is to adjust the national hurling league structure. 

Why not include the top 16 hurling teams in the country in a format of two groups of eight, with semi-finals and finals only?

Existing pre-season competitions could easily be dispensed with to make room for the extra games. 

These games against top-quality opposition would improve the standard of teams at the Joe McDonagh level. Moreover, this less intense league might suit the so-called elite teams because already we have heard comments from Tipperary hurling manager Michael Ryan suggesting teams will probably treat the league differently from now on, given the relentless physicality of the round-robin championship.

Finally, as regards the Leinster and Munster hurling championships, a number of managers, and particularly Wexford’s Davy Fitzgerald, flagged up the fact that having players play three or four games in a row is too much of a burden on amateurs.

The structure of the current round-robin means that in your third or fourth competitive game in a row, you could (as happened to Wexford last week against Kilkenny and Offaly in their relegation battle against Dublin) meet a team refreshed by a week’s bye.

The uneven sequencing is aggravated by the fact that in a five-team group, one team must have a bye. A solution may be that in every round the team that has a bye in Leinster plays its Munster counterpart. 

These matches could be played at a neutral venue and in combination with a Joe McDonagh Cup match adding to the profile of that competition. Who knows, the Joe McDonagh Cup game might get some TV coverage on the back of it!

Of course, there would be a random nature to this bye game but then a random draw was often part of the old provincial system. These games would add another intriguing dimension to the hurling championship and, as it happens, this year Limerick would have played Galway in round two — a very attractive fixture.

Moreover, five evenly spread matches for all teams — two consecutive weekends, followed by a break and then another two matches, followed by a break and a week’s build-up to the final round — might be fairer, slightly easier on the players in terms of recovery and highly marketable.

As with any potential fixtures change, there should be a club impact assessment statement done and in this, one of the welcome events of recent weeks was GAA director general Tom Ryan’s invite to the Club Players Association to have a direct say in fixtures for 2019.

The final issue that has come up in hurling revolves around Austin Gleeson’s infamous “own goal that never was” for Waterford against Tipperary.

In the aftermath, calls were made for greater use of video technology to assist referees. The debate is topical — video referees will be used for the first time at the Fifa World Cup in Russia, which kicks off today — but its use is not as straightforward or efficient as has been suggested and we’ll come back to it.

For now, what is more interesting was Derek McGrath’s reaction: “If it is a mistake, it is a mistake. We move on.” 

McGrath’s quote echoes the language used in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in cases concerning unforeseen happenings during a sporting event and notably the appeal by Brazilian athlete Vanderlei de Lima that he would have won the gold medal in the men’s marathon at the 2004 Olympics but for the intervention of the dancing Irish priest, Neil Horan. 

CAS dismissed the case, saying that sometimes participants must accept the “vicissitudes” of competing in a live sporting event.

Last weekend in Australia, the vicissitudes of life were written all over the face of another sports coach, former Melbourne Demons boss Neale Daniher, who comes from a storied family in AFL history.

Daniher has motor neuron disease (MND). The weekend’s round of AFL games was given over to promoting his charity and fund-raising for further research into MND. In one inspirational, life-affirming TV interview, Daniher repeatedly asked viewers not to feel sorry for him but to do something for him and he revealed the family motto — play on.

Play on is exactly what you want this hurling championship to do.

Sunday promises another rip-roaring encounter between Clare and Limerick. The last time the two played a Munster championship game in Ennis was in 1993. In goal that day for Limerick, for the last time after 18 consecutive seasons, was Tommy Quaid. Tommy Quaid died tragically in an accident 20 years ago. Limerick’s goalkeeper on Sunday will be his son, Nicky.

The vicissitudes of life, and we play on.

Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne and adjunct at the University of Limerick


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