KIERAN SHANNON: The schedule may be a bit mad, but format is a crazy kind of good

We’re nearly there now, mercifully, writes Kieran Shannon.

After one of the crankiest months the GAA has known outside of the typical January, the games are almost upon us. However April was for you and your club, no-one disputes that May means championship.

The fun and festival is about to begin and in a way hurling especially has never known or enjoyed the like of it.

Conor Lehane for one “can’t wait”.

Talking to this newspaper the other day, the Cork forward spoke excitedly about how the torrent of matches will be “brilliant” for players and supporters alike “because you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen”.

As he pointed out, at the end of all these games in Munster, two proud counties will find themselves barricaded from the All-Ireland series, their summer over before June is 18 days old.

Can anyone predict with any conviction which two from Cork, Tipp, Limerick, Clare or Waterford those bystanders will be? Lehane for one couldn’t, which is why he described the new format as “crazy”. As in a good kind of crazy. The kind of crazy you’d want.

If you were to believe the recent spin put on comments attributed to Offaly manager Kevin Martin, however, then the new format is a bad kind of crazy. “To be honest, I think it’s a bit mad,” he’d say at the launch of the Leinster hurling championship last week. The way certain reporters and media aggregators interpreted his remarks, Martin was both predicting and advocating for a return to the old championship format, echoing the views of Richie Power, the former Kilkenny hurler who now writes a column for RTÉ.ie.

A few days earlier Power had warned how the litany of games would likely cause players to break down through injury. He went further than that then though, declaring that he had “never been a supporter of the new system”, that the GAA would “end up going back to the previous system” and dismissed the new format as a “kneejerk reaction to the introduction of the Super 8s in football”.

When Power’s words were put to Martin, the Offaly manager did what most of us would instinctively do upon hearing the views of an eight-time All-Ireland winner and nod in agreement. “A kneejerk reaction is the proper phrase for it,” Martin would say, while outlining his reservations about the relentless nature of the schedule. “It’s cruel to have four games one after the other.”

What those same reporters and media outlets seemed — or chose — to miss was that Martin’s issue wasn’t with the format of the new championship but its schedule.

Martin merely envisaged the format being “changed for next year, not “binned” as one headline claimed. Instead of some teams like his own having to play four weeks in as many weeks as the current itinerary demands, he was suggesting a “break of a week” after two games. In other words, give an extra week to run off the round-robin, don’t scrap it altogether.

So why all the headlines the following day claiming Martin was “blasting” the new championship structure?

Because, as the past month painfully proved, the default setting when it comes to GAA discourse these days is to complain about something. It seems we’re only happy in the GAA when we’re not happy with the GAA.

If the GAA were to actually follow Power’s various comments and recommendations over the past 18 months, then the worst you could say about their new hurling format is that it was only a kneejerk reaction to Power’s own kneejerk reaction to the Super 8s.

A few days after Congress 2017 endorsed Páraic Duffy’s proposal for a new-look All-Ireland quarter-final stage in football, Power wrote another column for RTÉ.ie about how the Super 8 would “overshadow hurling” if hurling didn’t respond with a new format of its own.

So what did Power want the GAA authorities to do for hurling? Just like in football, “have hurling’s elite playing each other more often”. Retain the provincial championships but avoid a situation like the old system where “most teams face elimination after two games” in which “you could train hard for six months and your championship could be over in a flash”.

If he had his way there’d be two groups of six, guaranteeing everyone at least five championship games. The top two in Leinster and the top two in Munster then would square off against each other in the All Ireland semi-finals, with the final in August.

And so the GAA went and did pretty much what Power wanted them to do.

“The structure of the championship needs a change,” he said, so they changed it. About all they deviated from his blueprint was by having two groups of five instead of six and retaining the provincial finals and All Ireland quarter-final stage.

Yet less than 14 months on from that proposal and column, Power is now telling us that he has “never been a supporter of the new system”. He can’t see what he himself basically proposed “lasting”. “There was nothing wrong with the old format apart from the scheduling.”

On reflection, your two games to show for six months training was fair dinkum afterall. To be fair to Power, he’s not the first columnist to suffer amnesia, especially when it comes to expressing a view on GAA championship structures; at some point about all of us in this game have flip-flopped and contradicted each other on that one, if maybe not in such a short period of time. And he certainly won’t be the last to intuitively sock it to the man, even if the man in the meantime may have processed and acted upon whatever it was you earlier socked to him.

More importantly, Power’s latest column contains a very pertinent criticism of the new championship. The frantic nature of the new-look championship will lead to an increase in injuries. As he says: “It’s very unfair to ask amateur athletes to play weekend after weekend and work Monday to Friday in between.”

It’s one thing during the league when the stakes aren’t quite as high and managers are more likely to rotate personnel, but as Power points out, “the intensity and atmosphere of the championship is completely different”.

That though is an issue of scheduling, not format.

Power says “there was nothing wrong with the old format apart from the scheduling” but if he were to examine his own comments a bit more deeply he’d conclude there’s nothing wrong with this year’s format apart from the scheduling. Because that’s essentially what he said. “If it was two weeks between each game,” he wrote, “I’d have no problem with it.”

Martin’s comments were considerably more nuanced and also consistent with the views he expressed last November when he welcomed four guaranteed championship games “against top-class opposition” as “something really exciting for us” while simultaneously warning that the schedule would “take a serious toll” on his and every other panel. The schedule is “mad”, as in bad mad. But that still shouldn’t obscure the fact that the format is, as Lehane puts it, “crazy”, as in good crazy, a good type of mad.

In a few weeks time as provincial grounds all over hurling country are thronged and throbbing to multiple humdingers every weekend, most hurling people, including probably Power himself, are going to wonder why we hadn’t a championship format like this long before now.

It still won’t be perfect. Again, as Martin has alluded to, the schedule needs altering. All year the buzzwords have been “panel depth” and “panel rotation”, the inference being that come championship most management set-ups are going to try to pre-empt rather than respond to possible injuries. But for the most part that won’t be the case. Clare are going to play Tony Kelly and most of the 15 that start the opening game against Cork in every game until or unless Tony Kelly or those starters break down. Same with every other county in Munster bar possibly Tipp unless they’ve qualified with a game to spare. Same with every other county in Leinster bar Galway.

None of them should be in that position. While Power’s suggestion of a fortnight between every championship game would be a stretch when these players all have clubs to go home to, Martin’s call for a “break of a week” between games two and three is not. If a professional sport like rugby can afford two rest weekends during the course of the Six Nations, then an amateur sport like hurling can surely extends its teams the same courtesy.

There’ll also be complaints this summer about another type of schedule — TV.

For the past two decades almost every Munster hurling championship game has been shown live. That won’t be the case in 2018. On May 27, Galway will host its first-ever Leinster championship match with the visit of arch-rivals and league champions Kilkenny, Thurles will stage the oldest and biggest rivalry of the lot in Tipp and Cork, while All-Ireland finalists Waterford will open their campaign with a visit to a packed Cusack Park in Ennis. One of those games won’t be televised live, just like in football a week earlier, Monaghan-Tyrone inexplicably won’t. But they’re teething problems that can and will be tweaked in the years ahead.

The important thing is that the format — the baby — itself is a model of health.

Don’t chuck it out with the bathwater, Richie.

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