When Special Congress passed the new hurling proposals last Saturday, it threw up all sorts of new challenges and opportunities that it may not even have thought about.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS?
We’ve had it only once before in championship history, with the football qualifier between neighbours Carlow and Laois back in 2013. At the time it caused quite the storm, not least because both sets of players would only have been given a couple of weeks’ notice to work their work around it. But now it’s different. Teams and players can know six months in advance.
Think of the buzz it would create: Say, a Limerick-Clare game on a Friday night. Back in 2001 that pairing brought 10,000 into the Gaelic Grounds on a Thursday night for a league game because of the backlog of matches caused by the foot-and-mouth crisis, so filling Cusack Park or getting 20,000 into Limerick for a championship game between the two of them would hardly be a stretch.
You could have it on TV, freeing up a slot for other televised games on Saturday and Sunday. Punters heading into Pearse Stadium or Nowlan Park the next day, talking about the various flashpoints and ramifications of that game in Munster. You’d have the whole country yapping about nothing else but hurling.
Of course the issue of compensation for time off work could arise, most likely from the GPA. But it’s worth remembering, weeknight games are common practice during the pre-season provincial competitions and in both U21 championships, especially the hurling.
In the 2016 football championship there was a last-12 double-bill in Croke Park one Saturday featuring Donegal against Cork and Mayo against Westmeath; all but Westmeath would have had to take some time off work on the Friday to travel up to Dublin.
As Paraic Dufy pointed out to reporters after Special Congress last Saturday, Friday night games would only apply in the case of adjoining counties.
It’s not like you’d have Kilkenny travelling up to Galway for a Friday night game, or Waterford trekking all the way over to Clare. But you could have Kilkenny-Wexford. Clare-Limerick. Dublin-Offaly. Or Laois-Westmeath so the Tier Two championship gets an adequate profile and possible TV exposure.
That way players would still have the option to work a half-day and in the odd case, sit a morning exam, and yet still have plenty of time to mentally prepare and travel for a championship game.
As long as no county was asked to play more than one Friday night game during the summer, it wouldn’t be asking too much of players (though they might need to play a league game on a Friday night too to give them a dry run of the logistics and routine that goes with playing on that day). But it would do so much for the sport. Confining everything to just Saturday and Sunday would limit the promotional opportunities for the sport. Friday night lights would help maximise them.
PROVINCIAL FINALS AND HOME ADVANTAGE
It’s one of the most-touted criticisms you’ll have for any round-robin format, especially in Gaelic Games: The prospect of dead rubbers.
Say it’s the last round of the Munster championship. Tipperary are already through to the Munster final having won their first three games. Their last match is to Limerick who still have a chance to finish in the top three and make it to the All-Ireland series. What incentive have Tipp to win?
Well, we can think of an obvious one: Whoever tops their round-robin group gets to choose the venue for their provincial final. Beat Limerick and Tipp get to play the Munster final at home.
It would be a huge incentive in Munster in particular. Tipp, Cork, and Limerick would all crave a home provincial final: The players and management because it would give them a competitive advantage, playing in such familiar surroundings; their county boards, because of the extra revenue that would come from hosting such a game. If Clare or Waterford were to top the group, they obviously couldn’t host such a game but they could still choose an alternative venue for such a game.
In Leinster, there are fewer grounds with the capacity to host a provincial final, and counties within the province might feel they’ve been generous enough to Galway recently without allowing them host a Leinster final in 2018, even if Micheal Donoghue’s men do top the group next year. But neither should that prospect be ruled out either. It would certainly incentivise any team already qualified for a provincial final with still a round-robin match to go; the prospect of playing that final across the Shannon or not.
Earned home advantage is the norm in American sports; come the play-offs, the side with the best regular-season record gets to play the greater number of games in a series at home. And already Central Council established the principle in their initial draft, proposing that All-Ireland quarter-finals should be staged by the team who did better in their own provincial championship, that is, the team that finished runners-up in the provincial final should be at home for any clash with the third-placed team in the other province. That’s actually unlikely to transpire; the All-Ireland quarter-final round would probably work best as a double-header at the one, neutral, ground, instead of two stand-alone games at separate venues. But provincial finals can stand alone. At a venue a team has earned the right to choose.
PROVINCIAL WINNERS: MIND THE GAP, PLEASE
While, as we’ve just said, provincial finals can obviously stand alone, there is a strong case for them being on the same weekend. At the moment, as John Fogarty illustrated in these pages yesterday, they’re not: In a draft proposal the Leinster final is down for the last weekend of June, the Munster final for the first weekend of July. But that creates an anomaly, an injustice, even. While the Munster champions would ‘only’ have to wait four weeks for their All Ireland semi-final, the Leinster champions would have to wait five. That’s too long.
Hurling is likely to go to another level next summer with teams playing it as it supposed to be played: Regularly. But to go then from playing five games in eight weeks to none in five? Not logical, not fair.
If both All-Ireland semi-finals can be played over the one weekend, then so can both provincial finals, football or no football.
As county boards now go about scheduling and structuring their club competitions to work around the new inter-county championships, it would be in the best interests of the club player if they were mindful of what the motto of the CPA is and what is it not. It is Fix The Fixtures, not Run Off The Fixtures.
It is potentially great for the club game that April is now virtually exclusively free from inter-county games. But it will be devastating for clubs, and by extension, the wider club game if clubs are already out of their own championship before it’s even May.
The GAA as well as the county board must think in terms of the dual club player and the dual county. Say a Clare, Cork, Galway, Tipp, Dublin. Each of those counties will be looking to get a round of championship in each code played in April. Other counties might get in two rounds of championship in their dominant code. But whatever happens, clubs must still have something to play for when the club championship resumes in late summer or early autumn.
As Paudie Butler eloquently put it in an interview with this reporter years ago: “Whatever the top team in the parish is, they’re the heartbeat of the parish. Because if they’re training, the kids will be in the field and they’re learning a way of life and the culture. If that teams gets beaten early, the field can go dead.”
Clare is a dual county that looks well equipped for the challenge. Both their senior championships feature 16 clubs. They’ll look to get a round of each played in April.
Say then the hurlers make it to the All-Ireland final. The club championships resume at the start of September. Every club still has a chance to make it to the quarter-finals. And then it’s run off in rapid fire, one weekend hurling, the next football. By the end of September you have your quarter-finalists in both. By the end of October you have your county finalists in both.
They may need the first weekend of November to have both county champions. As much as Croke Park might be pushing to run off all competitions in the one calendar year, it has to remain fair to the dual county. The dual county player may be a thing of the past but the dual club player should be protected.
In a well-designed, efficient championship, every club player should be guaranteed three games and yet no county champion should have to play more than six games. Throw in the dual player and that’s potentially 12 games. Every dual county — a Clare, a Cork — needs at least 12 weeks to run off its championships and eight of them may well be after August.
No good being able to tell Croke Park you have county champions by September if you have clubs already out of the championship by April.
Friday night lights?
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