Monday 1 May 2017

Abolishing provincial championships only way to cure fixture problems

Endless debates about tinkering with formats ignore the root of all the issues

Peter Harte leads his Tyrone teammates before last year’s Ulster final. The provincial structures have so are remained sacrosanct Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Peter Harte leads his Tyrone teammates before last year’s Ulster final. The provincial structures have so are remained sacrosanct Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It's quite probable that never in the history of sport anywhere in the world have such relatively minor proposals for competition structure change received so much attention.

Replacing the All-Ireland football quarter-finals with a round-robin series, bringing forward the final to August and playing extra-time in all Championship games that finish level except provincial and All-Ireland deciders isn't exactly revolutionary stuff, yet it has dominated GAA discussion for weeks.

Today, the pros and cons will be batted around Croke Park for quite some time, gathering heat and emotion as they go, before being voted on by Congress. Whatever the outcome, it's hard to believe it will have much overall impact.

If the round-robin plan is accepted against wishes of the Gaelic Players' Association (GPA) and the Club Players' Association (CPA), accusations will fly in all directions.

The popular line will be how the 'suits' ignored the wishes of the players, even if at this stage neither the inter-county nor club population have any plans of their own on the table. And if the motion is defeated, it will be another serious setback for Central Council, the body responsible for running the GAA on a day-to-day basis.

Rejected

Last year, Central Council was forced to withdraw a motion on Championship reform on the night before Congress after being told that players in Division 4 counties would boycott a suggested 'secondary' championship.

So if Central Council were to have another proposal rejected this year, it would raise the logical question: how and why is the second highest authority after Congress so out of touch with the membership?

Not that sensitivities should matter on any side of the argument. Besides, it's all largely irrelevant what happens today.

Replace the quarter-finals with a round-robin? Big deal. Anyway, it only applies to eight counties in any year.

Bring forward the All-Ireland finals? Okay, so the GAA takes a promotional hit in September but it can easily survive that.

Play extra-time in most Championship games in order to avoid the disruption caused to fixtures schedules by replays? It will cost provincial councils revenue over a period of time but since replays cannot be factored into their budgets anyway, it's not a big issue.

The reality is that while these three motions are being debated, every delegate knows that it's all peripheral to the real problem, one caused by the provincial championships.

Congress can add or subtract to fixtures as they wish, squeeze the Championship programme until it's squealing for mercy and tweak the system every year, but it still won't make any difference to the underlying problem.

For as long as the provincial championships remain as the foundation for the All-Ireland Championship, there were always be uncertainty over fixtures and unfairness in the format.

And in ten - and probably 20 - years' time Congress will still be trying to correct a flawed system,

You might think all of that would be a sufficiently good reason for the GAA to address the fundamental question: why aren't we dealing with the root cause of the problem rather than skirting around the edges?

Just as it's pointless polishing out the scratch marks on an old car if the engine is blown, it's futile trying to balance the All-Ireland Championship in everyone's interest without removing the provincials.

This weekend 16 games will be played in the Allianz League, featuring action between counties whose performances decide they level at which they operate. It will continue until April when placings for next year will be decided by the tables.

It's orderly and logical, with all counties playing on the same weekend at a level appropriate to their current talents.

It's the secondary competition, yet when the main event comes along in summer, order and logic is dispensed with in favour a system based on geography. Even then, it's lopsided, with different numbers in each province.

If that were changed, many of the difficulties that led to the launch of the CPA could be sorted out quite easily. Instead of being dictated to by uneven provincial structures, a whole range of Championship options would become available.

Most of all, the programme could be laid out clearly and concisely, with the only possible variations arising for counties who progressed to the latter stages of the All-Ireland race. It's so obvious that it defies logic why there hasn't been any meaningful debate on starting with a blank page and devising a number of possible formats.

Instead, every review of the Championship works off the premise that the provincial championships are sacrosanct, even if that's patently not the case any more in Leinster hurling, which hosts outsiders.

Removing the provincials as the starting point for the All-Ireland Championships should not mean the abolition of provincial councils. That fear underpins the thinking in many counties - hence the reluctance to concede anything.

There will always be a need for regional structures to administer the huge amount of work that goes on away from Croke Park, but why should that have anything to do with Championship formats?

Funding

Obviously, if provincial championships, complete with the various councils retaining their own income, were abolished as part of the All-Ireland Championship, the entire GAA funding model would have to change.

Would that be such a bad thing? Surely not. In fact, it would lead to a fairer distribution of finance, carefully calibrated to suit particular requirements.

What's urgently needed now is really radical thinking across all spheres of GAA activity, not the tinkering that will go on today.

Club players are on the verge of mutiny, a situation brought about not by too much inter-county activity but by shambolic competition structures. Inter-county players, through the GPA, oppose much but propose little about how the championships should be run.

Granted, their plan for a continuation of the provincial championships, followed by a full-blown Champions League-style All-Ireland series, was rejected by Central Council in late 2015 but surely that should not be the end of their deliberations.

All sides have a responsibility to continue offering possible solutions to a problem where contagion has spread to club activity.

The trouble is that while everyone wants to tidy the room, they ignore the large provincial elephant that's causing the mess in the first place. It's time he was whooshed out the door.

Irish Independent

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