PADDY HEANEY: New format needed for tedious All-Ireland qualifiers

Astrange thing happened to me this week. While reading my two Monday newspapers; I discovered that I was totally and utterly engrossed.

That might seem like a bizarre confession from someone who makes their living from sport, but I don’t feel in the slightest bit ashamed.

After a summer of county action which was painfully devoid of excitement, it was refreshing to read reports from a succession of games which didn’t follow their preordained scripts.

For instance, in the Antrim senior hurling final, Cushendall overhauled a nine-point deficit to win by four. Yes, Cushendall were expected to win, but not in that fashion.

Ballinderry, the Ulster football champions in 2013, were also expected to beat Coleraine and set-up a repeat of last year’s final against Slaughtneil. Coleraine had other ideas. The Eoghan Rua men won by four points.

Coleraine beating Ballinderry is like Fermanagh beating Dublin and, as we all know only too well, those results don’t happen in county football.

The shocks weren’t limited to Derry.

A few years ago, a Trillick man advised me to keep an eye on a talented young footballer from his club. The boy was called Lee Brennan. On Sunday, the 19-year-old, who has already pocketed an All-Ireland U21 medal, helped Trillick qualify for their first county final since 1986. Meanwhile, in Down, the once-mighty Castlewellan reached their first county final in 14 years.

Pouncing from one report to the next, it was fascinating to read about the action that had taken place across the provinces.

It was only when I reached the coverage of the Rugby World Cup that I realised I had bulldozed through seven pages of club games.

Sadly, the coverage of ‘the rugby’ snapped me out of my trance.

Apart from England’s shock defeat to Wales, the results were mindnumbingly predictable.

South Africa 46 Samoa 6: Yawn. Scotland 39 USA 16: Is that the time? Ireland 44 Romania 10: Getting tired. Australia 65 Uruguay 3: Out for the count.

Surely, no sporting competition should be so uneventful? Yet, even the coma-inducing early stages of the Rugby World Cup compare favourably with this year’s All-Ireland Championship.

At least, though, the RWC has given us Japan’s win against South Africa and England’s defeat to Wales.

In contrast, this year’s All-Ireland Championship was a snorefest from start to finish.

Apart from about half a dozen people, everyone in the country knew that Dublin were going to lift the Sam Maguire Cup. The hype surrounding Kerry, or to be more specific, Eamonn Fitzmaurice, was just fantasy.

All in all, it was a very pedestrian championship. Tyrone’s march to the semi-finals was the only aspect of the summer which couldn’t have been predicted six months ago.

Of course, there is nothing new about this state of affairs. Now that the novelty of the qualifiers has gone, it’s accepted that the real championship doesn’t start until August.

However, this year’s quarter- finals also proved to be a huge anti-climax as Dublin, Kerry and Mayo all crushed their respective opponents.

Concerned by the uncompetitive nature of this year’s quarter-finals, Jim McGuinness wrote in his weekly column that the GAA should view this year’s championship as a “watershed moment.”

However, GAA director-general Paraic Duffy flatly rejected McGuinness’s comments.

“It’s the same argument year after year,” said Duffy. “Let me tell you this, in a couple of months’ time the Rugby World Cup will take place. Uruguay are in it and Canada and the US. I’m not an expert, that’s three or four that I can think of, but have they any chance of winning the Rugby World Cup?

“Will there be hammerings in it? Will there be one-sided games in it? Of course there will. But I don’t see any clamour in the Irish papers, of people saying, ‘keep these teams out of the Rugby World Cup, they shouldn’t be in it’.”

Some readers might accept Duffy’s argument. I don’t. Essentially, the director general’s defence is: yes, our championship is boring and predictable, but so is the Rugby World Cup. That’s not good enough.

Moreover, it’s unfair to compare the two competitions. The Rugby World Cup lasts six weeks and it only takes place every four years.

In the GAA, the qualifiers alone take five weeks to complete.

From a GAA perspective, the real cause for alarm stems from the distinct possibility that very little is going to change. Next year, the provincial championships will arouse minimal interest. Dublin will win Leinster. In Munster and Connacht, it will be same old story between the same old rivals. Ulster will produce a decent scrap among middleweight fighters who have no chance of succeeding in a higher division.

The qualifiers will produce a few shocks. There might even be a fairytale run, which will end with the inevitable defeat.

Yes, I realise this might sound like the moan of a tired, weary man. That’s not the case. It’s the championship which has become tired and weary.

Reading the reports of the club games made me realise that. A new format must be considered.

Unfortunately, given that our director general reckons the current structure is just tickety-boo, it’s highly unlikely any change will take place.

That’s slightly distressing, but if that is the case, the very least the GAA should do is expedite the process. There is no point keeping counties in a competition which they have no hope of winning. They should be put out of their misery, and it should be done quickly. At least that way, county championships can be given the time and respect which they deserve.


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