Sunday 11 December 2016

Martin Breheny: Lucky Kingdom's All-Ireland route proves it's time for a qualifier rethink

Rethink needed as qualifier quirk opens up an inviting path for Kerry

Published 20/07/2016 | 02:30

Kerry forward Darran O’Sullivan in action against Cian O’Dea of Clare during their Munster SFC semi-final at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney – the teams could meet again in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Kerry forward Darran O’Sullivan in action against Cian O’Dea of Clare during their Munster SFC semi-final at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney – the teams could meet again in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

The email sought reassurance that a daft situation had not arisen in the All-Ireland football championship. "A Kerry friend of mine claims that if next Saturday's qualifier games go a certain way, they can reach the semi-final without playing anyone except Tipperary and Clare. Surely that can't be true," wrote the sender.

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My reply was not what he wanted.

"Yes, it's true. If Clare and Tipperary win their qualifiers, Kerry will play Clare in the quarter-final. They have played Clare and Tipperary in Munster but they can't play Tipp in the quarter-final because provincial final re-runs are not allowed. In that case, Tipp would play Galway," I replied.

The response was succinct.

"That's nuts. So Kerry could reach the All-Ireland semi-final by beating Tipperary once and Clare twice." Correct.

Of course it may not turn out like that, since Clare and Tipp could lose to Roscommon and Derry respectively. And if only one of the Munster pair won, they would be paired with Galway to avoid a re-match with Kerry.

If both win, there's no way out. Kerry, who beat Clare easily last month, would face them again, this time in Croke Park. If the Banner win and Tipp lose, Kerry will play Derry in the quarter-final while Clare face Galway.

Irrespective of who wins the qualifiers, it's likely that Kerry will have relatively easy run to the semi-finals, since the other contenders in that group are Roscommon and Derry. Kerry easily beat Roscommon in the League semi-final while Derry have yet to prove they are ready for a big step-up.

Read more: Explained: Here is the state of play following today's Football Qualifier draw

It's very different for Tyrone and Dublin on the other side of the All-Ireland draw. They will play the winners of Donegal v Cork and probably Mayo, who are very likely to beat Westmeath.

That's very different to what Kerry and Galway are experiencing. However, since Galway are still an emerging squad, it's hard to know how they will respond to the new challenge, unlike Kerry, who have lost only two of 15 quarter-finals.

That Kerry could reach the semi-final by beating two counties who were in Division 3 this year is down to an unusual turn in Munster, where Tipp beat Cork and, more importantly, to the vagaries of the qualifier system.

Prior to 2014, all counties beaten in the provinces entered the qualifiers on an open draw system.

Since then, the qualifiers have been split into A and B, with counties allotted to either side before provincial championships start. It's also pre-ordained which provincial winners the Round 4 qualifiers from A and B will play.

Roscommon, Clare, Derry and Tipperary were all on the A side this year, while Cork, Donegal, Mayo and Westmeath were on the B side - hence the pairings which are now unfolding.

Instead of having an open draw for the eight remaining qualifiers, they were split into two fours.

Since the quarter-final pairings are also predetermined on the basis of A and B qualifiers, it meant that three major powers - Mayo, Donegal and Cork - could not face Kerry or Galway in the quarter-final.

In fairness to Galway, they had to beat two Division 1 teams to win the Connacht title, whereas Kerry had a much easier run through Munster.

Clarity

The reasons given for introducing the A and B system were that it would give counties greater clarity on qualifier dates, that it would lead to a more even spread of games, that it would cut waiting time for the qualifiers and reduce the possibility of beaten provincial finalists having a six-day turnaround.

So what happened this year? Antrim and Longford had to wait six weeks for their first qualifier game while Carlow and Wicklow had a five-week gap; Louth had a six-day turnaround for a Round 2 qualifier; most of Rounds 2A and 2B and 3A and 3B were played on the same weekends and Roscommon have a six-day turnaround after losing the Connacht final, although that's down to the replay.

Most anomalous of all, the restrictive nature of the A and B system has handed the most successful county a relatively easy run to the semi-finals.

Of course it might have happened under the open draw qualifier format too but at least it wouldn't be guaranteed, unlike what has now emerged.

It's time for a qualifier re-think on a number of levels.

Online Editors

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