UCD and NUIG enter this afternoon’s third-level decider having not kicked a ball in earnest since their respective semi-final victories on Wednesday evening. Compared with how the Sigerson finals weekend was structured in years past, three days of a break between the penultimate round and final is not to be scoffed at.
Think back to the 2015 finals weekend at the Mardyke, where on the Friday afternoon, DCU’s Enda Smith successfully latched onto the rebound of his saved penalty in second-half stoppages to send the Glasnevin University into the decider. Less than 24 hours later, extra-time was required to separate themselves and UCC. A hugely entertaining two days of fare for the neutral, yes. For the players, not so much.
Indeed, it really shouldn’t have taken this long for common sense to win through and the finals weekend to be disbanded.
The Sigerson showpiece was deliberately scheduled for today, as it is a free weekend where the Allianz Football League is concerned. Again, common sense.
What remains an issue, however, is the fixtures pile-up while the earlier rounds are ongoing.
Leading NUIG into battle today is Galway football captain Damien Comer and team-mate Peter Cooke. It has been a busy couple of weeks for the pair. The Galway University opened their campaign on January 24 and, between there and last Wednesday’s semi-final triumph over DIT, a period of 21 days, Comer and Cooke played six games. The latter started and finished all three of NUIG’s victories, as well as Galway’s opening day Division 1 win, with the midfielder withdrawn during the closing stages of the county’s wins away to Donegal and at home to Mayo. We make that 373 minutes.
For Comer, time spent inside the four white lines comes to 385 minutes.
For both, today marks their seventh competitive fixture in 24 days.
For UCD half-back Stephen Coen, it is a seventh competitive fixture in 25 days.
Across a 22-day window (Jan 23 to Feb 14), the Mayo defender started and finished UCD’s first-round, quarter- and semi-final victories, as well as his county’s first three league fixtures. That’s just under seven hours — 410 minutes — of action.
Yet, as strenuous as the schedule has been on these three, what they endured is not a patch on the hoops jumped through by third-level dual players Ciaran Russell (Garda College, Clare) and Gearoid Hegarty (UL, Limerick). No busier men have there been this past month.
During a 12-day period from Tuesday, January 23, to Sunday, February 4, Russell played six games: There was Sigerson on the Tuesday (Jan 23), Fitzgibbon on Thursday (Jan 25), national league with Clare on Saturday (Jan 27), Sigerson on Tuesday (Jan 30), Fitzgibbon on Thursday (Feb 1) and the second round of the league on Sunday (Feb 4). He started and finished both Fitzgibbon fixtures and Clare games, was substituted at half-time in the Garda College’s Sigerson opener and was removed three-quarters of an hour into their defeat to UCC. Moreover, Russell is based in Dublin and worked a number of overnight shifts before travelling back down the country for games during this 12 days of madness.
Gearoid Hegarty would have replicated this feat were it not for the grace shown by UL Fitzgibbon manager Gary Kirby. Even so, last Tuesday’s Fitzgibbon semi-final was Hegarty’s sixth competitive outing in 16 days. On only one occasion was he not present inside the whitewash from first whistle to last. It began on Sunday, January 28, with the Limerick hurlers welcoming Laois to the Gaelic Grounds. There followed Sigerson on Tuesday (Jan 30), more national hurling league on Sunday (Feb 4), Sigerson on Tuesday (Feb 6), Fitzgibbon on Thursday (Feb 8) and more Fitzgibbon on Tuesday last (Feb 13).
Injury prevented Kerry’s David Clifford and Sean O’Shea from playing four games in 10 days and, when pressed on what might be done to alleviate the burden on emerging talents, Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice said: “It is a scheduling problem, but I don’t have the answers.” Tipperary football boss Liam Kearns weighed in last Sunday: “These players are being flogged and, at some stage, somebody has to say enough. Either start the league earlier or start the third-level competitions earlier.”
What is likely to happen between here and next January? Nothing. Take it as given that you’ll read about another Ciaran Russell and Gearoid Hegarty in 12 months’ time.