Forgive us, reader.
League fatigue is catching pretty quickly and this column provides no cure.
Next Saturday, Central Council must choose a format for next season’s hurling competition so that the master fixtures calendar can be completed.
The decision would, and should, have been made by now but for a late, leftfield proposal from Michael Burns of the national fixtures planning committee.
A considered, if radical and complex structure, which splits Division 1 into two sections of six teams and includes cross-section games between similarly-seeded counties.
Recommended by the GAA’s Management Committee, it will go up against the latest format idea put forward by Carlow and Westmeath to include themselves and bump up the total number in the top flight to two groups of seven. The two proposals bring to six the number of blueprints that have come before Central Council in the last 12 months.
Last December, the 2012 six-team divisional plan was put forward again as well as an eight-team scheme with semi-finals between the top four.
However, both lost out to the embarrassingly poor six-team idea with quarter-finals linking Division 1A and 1B.
It meant a fourth-placed team in Division 1B, which likely lost more games than it won, reached the knockout stages ahead of two higher placed teams in Division 1A.
Credit must go to those in Croke Park who realised it would have made a mockery of the National League, a competition which has already been abused enough down through the years.
Although Cork’s absence from Division 1A next year was suggested as the catapult for that change of heart, whichever of the two proposals is plumped for on Saturday will be decidedly better.
The quarter-finals between Division 1A and 1B was a ridiculous crutch to the developing teams.
However, that’s not to say either of them are without their flaws. The cross-section games, which will pit counties of similar seeding based on their previous year’s league standing against each other, will in itself prop up the weaker teams. For example, Waterford next year would likely face two of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Galway in their cross-section games while Laois are in line to play two of Antrim, Offaly or Wexford.
So that’s three seed one matches Waterford will have, compared to Laois’ trio of seed three fixtures. It will mean more attractive games but mightn’t lend itself to the better teams reaching the knockout stages.
The main failing of this year’s six-team structure was its intense competition. One point this year separated teams from a semi-final and a relegation play-off. It simply had to change.
The league should offer some room for experimentation but does Burns’ format really offer that? When the lower seeded counties are given more of an opportunity to pick up points against teams of similar standing, how can the stronger sides afford to be lax when they face them? Shouldn’t a national competition reward the best instead of giving a leg-up to the lesser lights? Carlow and Westmeath’s determination not to be left out is reasonable. They have been making incremental advances and to be left out would be a setback. But if they are thinking the likes of Kilkenny and Tipperary are going to take it easy on them, they have another thing coming.
The other issue with both structures is the amount of time it will take both proposals to run off. This year’s National League was over and done in seven game weekends. Burns’ schedule will include nine.
Carlow and Westmeath suggest the extra round to facilitate them be played midweek but with clubs already being squeezed out that additional pinch may damage the chances of their plan going through.
GAA president Liam O’Neill last week said nobody has thought of anything better than Burns’ idea for the league. However, the eight-team Division 1 wasn’t anywhere near as complicated.
Wexford, though, were right to complain they would be discommoded. Carlow and Westmeath now sing the same song: no new league structure should be ushered through when teams don’t know what’s at stake in the previous season’s campaign. There is a lot to be impressed by in the Burns’ format. Certainly, the GAA’s Management Committee were dazzled by it. But if the most successful competitions in world sport have shown anything, it’s that predictability and simplicity in structure is best.
Right now, that’s not what is on offer for next season.
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