Ireland weakened by refusal to reform chaotic fixture list
Published 18/10/2011 | 05:00
BY his own admission, Finian Hanley doesn't know where he will be this time next week.
Anthony Tohill, his International Rules manager, doesn't know where the former Ireland vice-captain and Galway defender will be either.
In fact, Tohill can't be certain of at least three more of his prospective squad next week, including his captain Stephen Cluxton, as management becomes an exercise in finger-crossing this weekend.
And already Tohill has had to rely on the goodwill of the fixture makers in Ulster, who have rearranged their programme so Michael Murphy and Kevin McKernan can travel to Australia.
Regardless of your opinion on International Rules, it is no way for a manager to have to prepare his squad. Tohill has had to begin finding a replacement for Darran O'Sullivan, whose Mid Kerry divisional side are in a county final that can't budge from the October 30 date set.
And the Brogan brothers, Alan and Bernard, ruled themselves out to concentrate on Oliver Plunkett Eoghan Ruadh's Dublin title bid.
All of this is the legacy of the chaotic nature of fixture planning in the majority of counties and the inability to align club fixtures neatly into the inter-county programme during the year.
Despite the later start to the championship and the compression of the qualifiers in July, club programmes are finishing later and later each year.
The will to complete fixtures just isn't there in every county -- and especially in counties where inter-county managers are omnipotent.
Isn't it significant that the largest GAA county of all, Cork, has both its county football and hurling finals now completed?
There was a time when the weeks before and after an All-Ireland final were saturated with county finals. Not any more. The only notable finals played on either weekend in football were in Longford, Leitrim, Sligo and Antrim.
So October and even November have become the months to wrap up club competitions -- that brings direct conflict with International Rules, leaving players in awful dilemmas.
How hard is it for Cluxton, Hanley, Colm Begley and Leighton Glynn this weekend when they know that success with their clubs may ultimately mean no seat on the plane the next day to Australia to represent their country?
Gaelic football has no other competitive international vehicle so the opportunity for players to represent their country is willingly taken up on two weekends in two out of every three years.
But with the overlap of fixtures, it is becoming more and more common for Ireland managers to send weakened teams into battle against hardened professionals.
God knows Ireland need their strongest teams these days if the series is to survive.
But ring-fencing the series for a couple of weeks so that the best players can all be available is never likely to happen, because the will isn't there.
County board officials up and down the country view the Rules series with disdain as an elitist tier of the association that has little or nothing to do with them, and therefore the notion of devoting two precious weekends of the calendar year exclusively to it is almost alien to them.
And the idea of completing their programme of fixtures in advance of the Rules series just wouldn't be countenanced unless it is properly legislated for.
Two tiers are difficult to accommodate, but a third tier really taxes fixtures-planners.
Should every county final not be completed by the third weekend of October in a year when the Rules series is in Australia? Grand in theory and perhaps necessary, if the current mess is to be avoided.
But unlikely to happen in practice.