How inter-county management teams plan for the changes will be among the most intriguing aspects of the whole new ball game that will be Championship 2018, writes Kieran Shannon.
Richie Hogan will love it.
Back in the summer of 2015, as he was closing in on a seventh All-Ireland medal, the then hurler of the year spoke openly about how he “hated” the way championship hurling was run.
That summer he’d played only three matches to reach the All-Ireland final. “If I had a choice,” he told Newstalk’s Off The Ball, “I’d love to play maybe six or seven games at least in the championship.”
He advocated a round-robin provincial system and doing away with provincial champions waiting five weeks for their All-Ireland semi-final.
“If you look at the Premiership or any sport, they’re all more or less league-based, whereas ours is championship-based… It’s a hard thing to change because there’s tradition and all that sort of thing. But from a player point of view, of course you’d love more games and less training.”
Well, he’s got it now. As yesterday’s GAA masters fixtures programme confirmed, Kilkenny and Hogan are assured of four games even if they don’t get out of Leinster.
Win Leinster and win the All-Ireland and they’ll get the seven championship games that he craved.
In the league, the games will keep coming thick and fast too. Hogan’s old teammate Tommy Walsh used to love that about the competition. “Big games every week. Sure what else would you want?” Take it so, that players — or at least hurlers — will be thrilled with the new format. Less training, more games.
What Brian Cody thinks of it, though, is another matter. Knowing him, he’ll just accept it for what it is and get on with it, but how he and every other inter-county management “get on with it” and plan for it will be among the most intriguing aspects of the whole new ball game that will be Championship 2018.
Indeed, of all the conversations and phonecalls that yesterday’s masters fixtures announcement would have triggered, the most interesting to have been eavesdropping on would have been those among internal team managements.
So what might they have been talking about? What might they do?
1 ‘One week to get ready for an All-Ireland semi-final?’
True, it’s a first-world problem and one that will be just the same for the opponent, but whoever makes it through to the All-Ireland football semi-finals will have only seven — maybe even six — days of a turnaround from their last Super 8 game. Traditionally, they would have had three weeks leading in to an All-Ireland semi-final. In hurling for a provincial champion it’s four weeks. That’s quite a discrepancy and quite the challenge, especially if you’re hoping to take down a force like Jim Gavin’s.
The last time Dublin were foiled in championship was back in 2014 when Jim McGuinness brilliantly devised and rehearsed the necessary gameplan. But McGuinness had three weeks to draw up and coach that gameplan. Would it have been possible to condense the necessary prep in to just a week?
It will be particularly tricky for a set-up like Mayo with so many players living more than two hours away from Castlebar. As accustomed as they’ve become to playing week in, week out these past two summers, they’ve always had adequate time to get ready for any encounter with a fellow big gun.
In 2016 they beat Westmeath on a Saturday and the next day were back in analysing Tyrone ahead of a critical quarter-final. This year, even after being brought to a quarter-final replay against Roscommon, they still had 13 days to get ready for Kerry.
Normally for an All-Ireland semi-final, Stephen Rochford’s crew would have a weekend camp — possibly one in MacHale Park — a week out from the match where they could analyse their upcoming opponent and rehearse the agreed gameplan. In 2018, they could be playing their last Super 8 game on a Sunday. No chance for video analysis on their All-Ireland semi-final that same day. Instead they’ll have to ask their Dublin-based players to commute westwards at least twice in midweek, with maybe one session in the midlands.
Or maybe they’ll do what McGuinness did in 2014. On top of all the sessions he had with his players in Donegal, he also brought them to Johnstown House for a five-day camp. Take it at least two of the big hitters will be ready to tell their players to take off work the week leading into the All-Ireland semi-final. In fact don’t be surprised if Gavin was on to Carton yesterday already. August is the new April, Carton and Enfield the new Portugal.
2 ‘I know we could be meeting them again in the final, but call them…’
As mentioned above, the lead-in for an All Ireland semi-finalist in hurling is completely different. Win your provincial title and you’re waiting four weeks for your All-Ireland semi-final. Not ideal, but better than the five-week lay-off they’d have had before.
There’s also another possible bonus with the new format. Under the old one, it was virtually impossible to get a decent challenge game once you’d won your province. But now, with both the Leinster and Munster hurling final scheduled for the same day and both All-Ireland semi-finals set for the same weekend, don’t be surprised if both provincial champions line up a game against one another two weeks out from their respective semi-finals.
Yeah, there’s a chance they might be playing each other again in the final, but in the football there’s a real possibility that whoever meets in the final may have met in the Super 8 quarter-final round as well.
You’ve to reach the final first, and the best way to get there is a good, hard challenge game to offset any advantage and momentum your semi-final opponent might have got from the extra game in the quarter-final.
3 ‘Look, the league is only the league again’
With Hogan having got his wish with the hurling provincial championships now basically a league, the actual league itself takes on a different significance. A lesser one, in fact. The clamour to avoid relegation from Division 1A won’t be as frenzied as it has been, especially as teams from 1B have tended to go on and win the thing outright these past three years anyway. Take it the big guns will be in more chill mode in the league, literally, with it starting three weeks earlier. Which means…
4 ‘Do a Tipp in the Waterford Crystal’
The last couple of years Tipperary didn’t even enter the pre-season competition. In 2018 you’ll see more teams taking that approach, or something closer to Jim Gavin’s to last year’s O’Byrne Cup, in which he fielded a third-string team in the provincial pre-season tournament.
Who wants to play in December?
5 ‘We’re not going to be anybody’s April’s Fool’
In advancing the case for the new formats, Páraic Duffy has claimed April is now a club-only month, but even he knows that there’s no way inter-county managements are not going to want some access to county players.
We like how the GAA have staggered some of the provincial hurling fixtures, with Munster starting a week later than Leinster. That gives Munster counties like Cork an extra week, including the last weekend of April, to play a round of club games.
But if the GAA think the Galway hurlers and footballers are going to be playing club that same weekend when they’re both out in championship on the weekend of May 12-13, then they’re taking Micheal Donoghue and Kevin Walsh for April Fools.
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