Provincial pain can be key to ultimate glory
BY 8.35 tonight the shape of next year's GAA provincial championships will be sketched but won't have provided even the merest outline of how the All-Ireland series might develop, certainly not in football where provincial winners have had a difficult time over the last 10 seasons.
The days when the provincial championship decided the pairings for the All-Ireland semi-finals are long gone, replaced by a scenario where it's now being claimed that losing in the provinces can actually be an advantage.
It's a case enhanced by this year's experience where none of the four All-Ireland semi-finalists -- Cork, Dublin, Kildare and Down -- survived past the provincial semi-finals.
All four provincial winners -- Kerry, Meath, Tyrone and Roscommon -- were beaten in the quarter-finals. It was the first time since the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001 that none of the provincial winners reached the All-Ireland semi-finals. Conversely, there has been no season when all four provincial winners won quarter-finals.
Provincial winners have had a less than a 50-50 success rate in the All-Ireland quarter-finals since 2001. Of the 40 provincial winners, 19 have won quarter-finals, a figure greatly boosted by the consistency of Kerry and Cork. They shared all 10 Munster titles between them and won nine of the subsequent quarter-finals, only for the run to end this year when Kerry lost to Down.
Connacht winners have had a dreadful run over the last 10 seasons, with only two (Mayo 2004 and '06) winning quarter-finals, while the other eight lost by average margins of over five points per game. Ironically, they were the first to benefit from the qualifiers when Galway won the All-Ireland title in 2001.
Ulster and Leinster champions have each lost six of 10 quarter-finals since 2001, so if Munster is removed from the equation, the win-loss ratio among the other three provinces is 1:2.
It reopens two debates, centred on whether (a) the provincial championships are relevant anymore and (b) whether provincial winners are treated unfairly since they don't get a second chance if they lose All-Ireland quarter-finals.
An attempt by Tyrone and Dublin to change the All-Ireland series so as to guarantee that at least two provincial winners would reach the semi-finals was rejected at Congress last April. The proposal was for the four provincial winners to play off against each other, with the winners reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals and the losers playing the last two surviving teams from the qualifiers. Effectively, it meant that only two qualifiers could reach the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Mickey Harte has long been an advocate for change but Tyrone failed to get the necessary support at Congress amid arguments that it would add to the fixture congestion during an extremely busy time of the season. It's a view regularly put forward by senior Croke Park officials, although it doesn't stand up to scrutiny when weighed against the long, drawn-out format for the provincial championships.
This year's Connacht championship (seven games, including one replay) took 11 weeks to run off; Ulster (eight games) took nine weeks; Leinster (11 games) ran for eight weeks, while Munster (six games) took seven weeks. A tightening up of all the provincial programmes would leave room for manoeuvre with the All-Ireland championship timetable in July-August.
Dublin, Tyrone, Armagh and Galway have been the biggest losers under the existing system, having each been beaten in three All-Ireland quarter-finals after winning provincial titles.
While it's unquestionable that the qualifiers have removed the cutting edge from the provincial championships, it has not led to a reduction in attendances, certainly at the latter stages.
There's less unease over the impact of the qualifiers on the provincial hurling championships, but then Kilkenny's dominance over the last decade greatly cut down on the number of times Liam MacCarthy went to a county that had been beaten in the provinces.
However, it did happen this year when Tipperary recovered from defeat in the first round of the Munster championship to plot their way to All-Ireland success, thus becoming the first qualifier to triumph since Cork in 2004.
- The draws will be shown live on RTE 2 at 8.05 tonight.