Dr Ed Coughlan: Super 8 ticks boxes but now the league must undergo a change

People talk about player burnout but little is ever done to address the growing strain on players’ time, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.


How super will the Super 8 prove to be?

One of the most hotly discussed topics in Irish sport in 2017 arose from the historic decision by the GAA to alter the structure of the senior inter-county football championship for the 2018 season that lies ahead.

Criticisms of the previous structure had been voiced from all sides. The inter-county championship season was said to be too long and drawn out, having significant and far-reaching negative effects on the smooth running of the club championship – the lifeblood of the GAA.

Elite players were regularly expected to finish their inter-county season and immediately take part in a glut of club matches to be contested in an unrealistic timeframe, in far from ideal conditions, on over-stressed pitches across the country, often six months after the competition commenced.

This point has been somewhat addressed by the new developments with assurances that the inter-county championship will now be concluded in August, leaving September free for club fixtures to be accounted for in a more reasonable timeframe. Also, April has been earmarked as a club-only month. However, there are no repercussions for counties who ignore this directive, so we are likely to see more friction than harmony between club and county.

It was also thought that the top teams do not play against each other often enough, leaving many one-sided match-ups until the semi-final stages in August. Dublin have been playing a series of one-sided matches every summer, but they are not alone, with many games ending with predictably uninspiring winning margins.

Again, this point has been accounted for in the new system, with a round-robin format between the top teams, levelling the paths teams travel to the semi-final stages.

Among other gripes, teams also appeared to experience very different timelines between championship matches, ranging from one week to five weeks, in some cases. Not to mention the absurd gap that existed between the end of the national league and the commencement of the championship, with some counties having to wait up to 10 weeks for a competitive fixture.

Once again, the Super 8 will ensure a consistent timeline between games for all teams, so recovery and preparation for matches, though time has decreased, will at least be the same for everyone. Moreover, the removal of replays apart from for provincial and All-Ireland finals will control the number of matches a county can potentially compete in over the summer months.

When all cases were developed and opinions heard, some more than others, the Super 8 was presented at the Annual Congress, the yearly culmination of the democratic process that underlies every decision within the GAA. It was accepted, with a resounding 76% of the votes in favour of the new system. Remarkably, the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) and the Club Players Association (CPA), both canvassed their members, with little success, to reject the proposed changes, because of how it would potentially widen the gap between the best and the rest. Essentially suggesting that the positives for those who make it into the Super 8 far exceed the negatives for those who do not.

To recap for those, like myself, who are still unsure what it looks like, the Super 8 format, which only kicks in at the quarter-final stage of the championship, comprises of two groups, formed from the following criteria:

Group 1: Munster champions, Connacht champions, Ulster runners-up (or qualifier team that beats them in Round 4), Leinster runners-up (or qualifier team that beats them in Round 4).

Group 2: Ulster champions, Leinster champions, Munster runners-up (or qualifier team that beats them in Round 4), Connacht runners-up (or qualifier team that beats them in Round 4).

Under this format, each county will play one home game, one away game and one game in Croke Park, or two home games if you’re Dublin, as some commentators have pointed out.

Incredibly, the provincial championships have remained unchanged in this latest upheaval. For example, the fact that a provincial title in Munster is still peddled as equivalent to the same result in Ulster is bemusing to anyone outside of the GAA when they are told how lopsided each province is set up. How long will this outdated tradition based on meaningless provincial borders be tolerated? There is not a shred of common sense in maintaining it as it stands, though there might be a solution.

The national league has become nothing more than a competition used for experimentation, where the only people who rate it as purposeful are those who finish in the top two of each division. It has little or no impact on the main event that takes place over the summer. However, if the provincial championships were played between February and March as a standalone competition, that may lead to seeding of counties into a champions league type competition over the summer, a lot more balance could be brought to bear on the system.

Think of the ease of travel for players and fans alike to have only to commute within their own province through the busy months of January to March, where winter leagues and college competitions also compete for space on the calendar. No more ludicrous round-trips for teams such as Cork, Kerry, Donegal and Tyrone, where half-baked teams are trotted out to fulfil a fixture that will have no bearing on the championship during the summer.

Surely the positive impact this would have on player welfare is far more important than upholding a misused tradition? We hear so many people talk about player burnout but little is ever done to address the growing strain on players’ time.

But what of the Super 8? So far all of these issues are more closely related to administrative concerns. What of the logistics required to enable these teams who make the cut to run their operations smoothly?

We can expect to see attrition rates rise as the lesser counties who are normally accustomed to be back playing for their clubs in July will now be in the throes of additional training and playing. Sport science has had a significant positive impact on the GAA community over the past decade, and this is set to continue with ever more specialist and qualified practitioners required to manage the load on players expected to compete week-in, week-out.

Communication between the strength and conditioning coaches, field coaches, medical team and management will need to be seamless to prevent player wear and tear. We can expect to see greater player rotation within each squad also, and more accurate use of the cliché ‘horses for courses’ being quoted in post-match interviews to explain why certain players are used and others are not.

But as John Lydgate once said, you can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The Super 8 will need every bit of the three years it is granted for its trial period to determine whether it works or not. The hope is that there will be sufficient positives to encourage the powers-that-be to look to add further changes to future versions of the GAA calendar, so that players are made to feel more like partners in our national games, rather than pawns.

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