A weekend with so many fixtures is overload, writes John Fogarty. 

Mammoth GAA weekend, wasn’t it — 32 Allianz League games and two All-Ireland club senior football semi-finals. Seven matches televised live, Roscommon-Donegal deferred. Bountiful, right? Wrong. More like overload.

If you felt like you missed out, you weren’t alone. The average GAA follower wouldn’t have known where to turn. Apart from the last-four club SFC games, the hurling competition has traditionally had its opening weekend all to itself. On this occasion, it felt more like a football weekend.

In shrinking the league schedule, round two of the football league also had to be accommodated this past weekend. And so while there should have been more attention paid to the likes of Cork and Clare’s meeting on Saturday evening, there were the distracting influences of games like Kerry v Mayo and Dublin v Tyrone, which are the likely All-Ireland SFC semi-final pairings in six months’ time.

Up to last year, there had been two double weekends but this year we will see another three on top of the one just past. Along with jettisoning the Division 1 semi-finals, the reasoning is to narrow the league part of the inter-county season. The next double weekend arises on March 4-5 but at least there is some breathing space provided to both codes with three of the four Division 1 football fixtures taking place on the Saturday. However, the final round of the hurling league is down for March 26, alongside 12 of the 16 penultimate round matches in football, including three Division 1 fixtures. And, like before, the hurling quarter-finals are slated in for the same weekend as football’s final round.

On Saturday, both All-Ireland club semi-finals overlapped with Ireland’s Six Nations games in Rome. Nothing new about that. Some things just can’t be helped. However, the simultaneous live broadcasting of GAA matches was unfortunate. Nobody can suggest Eir Sport, which showed four live games on Saturday, aren’t pulling out all the stops. In fairness, Eir provided useful highlight updates from Tralee during their coverage of the Croke Park game, but football would have been better served had two top-drawer games like Dublin-Tyrone and Kerry-Mayo not clashed, never mind shared the same live 7pm throw-in with the Cork-Clare hurling opener.

Hurling not only warrants but needs its own space and time. When it is the lesser attraction, by all means sell it as such but putting it in competition with football as a spectacle seems self-defeating on the GAA’s behalf. Beginning the hurling competition this coming weekend so that it could be provided with sufficient billing wouldn’t have put a huge weight on the fixtures schedule.

It goes both ways, of course. A bad hurling match beats a bad football one and there are more of the latter than the former but shouldn’t football have room to manoeuvre too? There is a growing chorus of people endorsing the format of the football league as the way to go for the championship but when it has hurling for such regular company, it will never be anything more than “the league”.

It’s difficult to shake the perception that the Croke Park bosses see football and hurling as one and the same. Their determination to run off so many of the codes’ games concurrently, in doing so helping to kill off the inter-county dual player, suggests they don’t fully acknowledge they have two sports that have to be promoted separately.

There are times when endorsing them as a package can work too. This past weekend, five counties staged double-headers. Kerry could have too but chose to use Austin Stack Park one day after another. It’s joined-up thinking like double bills that will work best for both codes. It’s one of the ways the 700-something crowds that have attended Tipperary footballers’ opening two home games can be increased. Partnering their Division 3 game against Longford with the hurlers’ date with Clare in Semple Stadium on March 5 will be beneficial. In that respect, it’s a pity Cork have no double-header this spring.

Obviously, the GAA’s primary concern should be getting games played. It’s for that very cause that football and hurling are clashing more, but marketing the sports at their elite level is fundamentally important too. There were few better contests than the third meeting of Kilkenny and Waterford in seven months to launch the hurling league but its appeal was drowned out to an extent by the attention afforded to football.

Last week came the confirmation that TG4 had decommissioned the excellent Séo Spóirt programme. Hopefully, the widespread negative reaction to that decision and petition that has since followed will prompt a U-turn. Many’s the time it put a beautiful frame on a not-so beautiful painting. The news served as a reminder just how dependent the GAA is on the media to preview its games. The games don’t sell themselves but they might have a better chance of doing so were they not pitted against each other.

Black cards lose clout down the stretch

A relatively quiet opening weekend on the black card front — 13 across four divisions — was followed up by a busier round two, when 20 were shown. That’s not to mention the three that were shown in the Slaughtneil-St Vincent’s All-Ireland semi-final, two of which were shown in additional time. Of the 33 shown so far in the league, 21 of them have come past or on the hour mark. Eleven have been picked up in additional time. Not surprisingly, most have come down the stretch of tight encounters where players seem only too happy to take one for the team if it means slowing up play and preventing a score.

More is less for fixture list as codes pitted against each other

Going down to 14 men at that stage doesn’t seem as much of a concern either. For the second successive game, Kerry finished one man down because a player of theirs had been shown a black card after they had used their full complement of substitutes. Cork and Kildare were also numerically disadvantaged on Sunday when John O’Rourke and Keith Cribbin were dismissed for cynical fouls after their respective benches had been run. It’s hardly ideal for managers but they’re more likely to write it off as an occupational hazard.

The GAA has entrusted football referees with upholding the integrity of the black card. However, if it is here not just to stay but to make a positive impact, it has to carry more value in the closing stages of games, when it is more prominent and less effective. In the 2016 report, the playing rules committee said there was anecdotal evidence that players are “less reticent” about receiving black cards in the final minutes of games. The proof is more than anecdotal now. A close-range free may be a more appropriate alternative punishment than an automatic replacement.

Hurling does have a rulebook

One wonders if referee Fergal Horgan ever did get around to giving Ryan O’Dwyer an earful. Who could blame him? In an interview in 2013, the Cashel-born Dublin forward explained his fellow Tipperary native’s thinking on officiating: “When he played, he was the filthiest f****r ever. But he said when he became a referee, he read the rulebook once and then threw it away and used his common sense. And I think if that can be used, it’s far better than any rule book.”

More is less for fixture list as codes pitted against each other

Horgan’s approach was evident in Nowlan Park on Sunday, much to the enjoyment of a lot of spectators and viewers who felt he contributed to an incredibly physical game where Waterford joined Kilkenny on their lofty edge. However, some of the exchanges were ridiculously over-the-top and merited far more sanction than Horgan was prepared to hand out. In Wexford, a couple of the decisions made by Diarmuid Kirwan were condemned by Limerick manager John Kiely who felt his forwards were “hacked down repeatedly” by Wexford. The unfortunate by-product of the mandatory helmet rule is that it has legitimised more hits. Players aren’t getting bigger for no reason: They do so at the behest of management. Referees’ first duty of care is to the players, not the play.

  • Email: john.fogarty @examiner.ie

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