'Only radical reform can serve all interests'
Aidan O’Rourke tells Colm Keys about his idea for shaking up the GAA’s annual calendar
As the Congress discourse unfolded over the weekend and a new era of modest change was ushered in, former Armagh All-Ireland winner Aidan O'Rourke began to sketch the thoughts borne out of frustration that had been rolling around his head for many years.
As player first, then selector and manager and now third-level administrator, on top of a lifelong involvement with his club Dromintee, O'Rourke has always felt that the nature of the GAA's representative layers and how they have organically grown demanded a radical calendar overhaul, not the "piecemeal" solutions and practices that have been suggested and put in place.
The games, he feel, have outgrown the current model and no amount of sticking plaster will resolve it.
So he has produced up a blueprint for change that has followed a few basic principles. Among them are:
- A strong link between an 'All-Ireland league' and All-Ireland championship, both competitions split into senior, intermediate and junior to equalise standards more.
- Retention of the provincial championships.
- Every county has a chance at winning the All-Ireland senior title.
- Uniform blocks of time for club leagues and championships later in the year.
- All competitions finished in the same calendar year.
In O'Rourke's plan the inter-county season would have four distinct periods with no overlap.
Pre-season would take place over four weekends in February, followed by a week's break and then an 11-week league programme featuring senior, intermediate and junior counties.
Breaks would take place in week four for all divisions and week eight for senior (because it is a 10-team group) before an early May conclusion.
Teams that finish in the top four of the league would automatically qualify as seeded quarter-finalists in an All-Ireland championship later on.
In intermediate and junior the top two would be promoted with the bottom two in senior and intermediate relegated. But if one of those two relegated teams won a subsequent provincial or All-Ireland title they would remain at the expense of the next lowest finishing team in the league.
The top four in intermediate and junior leagues would qualify automatically for All-Ireland intermediate and junior semi-finals, again later in the year.
The provincial championships are slated for four weekends from the end of May to the end of June with a 'play to the finish' principle ruling out replays. O'Rourke suggests that every province should have a qualifier for the All-Ireland senior quarter-finals.
If the provincial champions are one of the four seeded teams already qualified from the league then the highest finishing county in the provincial championship that isn't one of the original steps in.
If both beaten provincial semi-finalists fit the criteria then they play off to decide who make the quarter-finals.
If that county is already in an intermediate or junior semi-final then the fifth team in the intermediate or junior league takes their place in that intermediate or junior semi-final.
In his plan O'Rourke has slated All-Ireland senior quarter-finals and all semi-finals finals for the month of July. For 2018, that means quarter-finals on July 1 and a final three weeks later on July 22 with intermediate and junior finals the previous day.
By then county players out of the championship will be back playing club leagues which O'Rourke has uniformly pencilled in to take place over a 91-day period between May and August (applying 2018 dates that is May 18 to August 17). A club pre-season has also been allowed for in the overall plan.
O'Rourke believes the standardising of dates for all club championships is crucial to an overall strategy, taking place over an eight-week period between August and October and allowing another eight-week period to complete provincial and All-Ireland club championships by December 7 (2018).
Under the terms of his blueprint, an inter-county season can run for four-and-a-half months with a minimum of 13 meaningful matches to a maximum of six months and 19 meaningful matches. Having such an early end to inter-county activity should not be a barrier to the radical reform he is proposing.
"Throughout my playing career, and this prevails currently, the inter-county season is too long," he said. "Players and coaches would tell you that, there are not enough games. By the end of April something like two-thirds of a county team's fixtures are played. The complaint is in Ulster that you might have to wait four weeks for a game. That typically is an excuse to train the daylights out of boys as opposed to what players want: to play every week and know what is coming up.
"There is not really another serious sport in the world that doesn't have that approach, rugby soccer, AFL. You want to create a competition that is watchable, meaningful.
"For me, it's no-brainer to link league and championship and make them almost the same competition which this attempts to do."
O'Rourke says he respects the attempts being made to resolve the issue and sees where each stakeholder is coming from but feels a complete overhaul is now the only way.
"It frustrates me. I can see everyone's perspective. I can see where headquarters are seeking to go with 'super eights'. I can see the club perspective. Everyone wants their own piece but no one can see the bigger picture, that piecemeal measures will not take us anywhere, it's just shuffling the chairs.
"The reality of the season, as it has always been, is that it doesn't serve anyone as well as it could. The difficulty with change is that it has always been a certain way.
O'Rourke accepts he has not integrated a hurling programme into his thoughts but feels something similar would only work if it was concurrent and that, he accepts, would put a further squeeze on dual players if there wasn't rotating weekends.
With some fine-tuning, O'Rourke intends to submit his work when the next opportunity arises for such a forum.
He admitted he had "no particular dog in the fight" but noted that "the recent discussion around which corner of our games is more important and which takes priority has really frustrated me. It seems driven by self-interest in almost every case.
"Certainly the club game has been continually squeezed and the walls continue to close in on the key development stage that third-level games represent. The demands from county managers on players for their time and attention have a large part to play in this but this is fuelled by the environment everyone is working in."