Released yesterday, next season’s master fixtures calendar shows just 14 games will be played in April (2), August (11), and September (1), in contrast to 93 this past year — 63 in April, 24 in August, and six in September.
Barring replays, September will be completely inter-county free in 2019.
Following incremental changes made at the last two Annual Congresses and last month’s Special Congress, the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) have been able to provide more time for county boards to schedule club activity.
Presenting the plan yesterday, GAA director of games administration and player welfare Feargal McGill explained changes such as minor becoming U17 from next year, U21 dropping to U20, a reduction in replays, and bringing forward All-Ireland finals have facilitated what can be considered the biggest alterations to the GAA schedule since the start of the leagues moved to the beginning of the year in 2002.
McGill claims there will also be a reduction of nine inter-county weekends in 2018 (35 to 26) with a similar increase seen in club-only weekends (15 to 24), which are defined as those when 28 or more counties are not involved in inter-county competitions.
Freeing up April has been an aspiration of the Club Players Association (CPA) but McGill wasn’t going to speak for them. “It’s a question for the CPA. You’ve all seen what the CPA’s main objectives were in terms of the calendar. The one thing we haven’t got here is a calendar year. That may come in due course but I think the main thing they were looking for was April to be free for clubs, and that’s there. So whether this keeps the CPA happy or not I don’t know. We have 400,000 club players in total so we’re trying to keep a lot of people happy.”
Both Leinster and Munster senior hurling finals have been earmarked for July 1 next year. McGill said the scheduling addresses the issue of a six-day turnaround for provincial football runners-up.
It had been suggested the Leinster senior hurling championship would finish up a week earlier, having started a week prior to the Munster competition. However, because the Leinster SFC decider now takes place on June 24, the losers don’t have such a short gap to their fourth-round qualifier on July 7 or 8.
Should Cork and Kerry progress to the Munster SFC final again next year, the match will be played under lights in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday, June 23, with a 7pm throw-in. That means it could be screened by Sky Sports. Either the Leinster or Ulster final will get the Saturday treatment in 2019 as part of the three-year experiment.
Next year’s Allianz Division 1 hurling final will be played under lights on March 24 unless Kilkenny and Tipperary face off in it (as Tipperary are due to face Kilkenny in Nowlan Park, which doesn’t have those facilities).
With the need to conclude the leagues by the first weekend in April, the CCCC stated they were presented with the choice of either staging the hurling final or the final round of the football league on a Saturday evening.
Tipperary manager Michael Ryan and former Kilkenny selector and current national hurling development manager Martin Fogarty are just two figures who have spoken out about the unsuitability of hurling under lights. However, McGill pointed to the 2013 Clare-Cork and 2014 Kilkenny-Tipperary All-Ireland final replays as examples of high-profile games that finished under lights, although Croke Park’s wattage is much stronger than other venues.
“We have had All-Ireland hurling finals here finishing under lights and that seemed to work very well and we have no doubt this will work well/ We are not tied to this, it’s just something we wanted to have a look at and see how it goes, we believe it will be very successful.”
McGill and CCCC chairman George Cartwright don’t anticipate hurling counties will treat the league any differently now that the format is replicated in the Leinster and Munster championships. A number of hurling observers expect Division 1A, for one, won’t be as cut-throat, but McGill said: “I don’t think so. Anyone who plays the game goes out to win. There’s only two national competitions. There’s only two ways you can win a national medal at adult senior and that’s the league and the championship.”
Cartwright added: “I still think they will have half an eye on the championship. Especially when it’s starting earlier as well. You can see Galway this year as an example.”
The four teams who progress from the ‘Super 8’ All-Ireland senior football quarter-final phase will have just six or seven days to prepare for their All-Ireland semi-finals next August, but McGill said the CCCC “don’t see it is as a problem because every team is in the same boat”.