'Everything has just conspired to make this weekend meaningless'
Today's humdrum finale highlights the need for change in the hurling leagues, says Damian Lawlor
LAST Sunday, at half-time in their final round game against Cork, word reached the Mayo dressing room that only a win would guarantee their place in the league final.
They had travelled to the Páirc Uí Chaoimh clash hopeful of making the decider but when news of Dublin's dominance against Tyrone filtered through, the Mayo players realised they had to nail Cork and secure two more points to make it to the final.
"We heard that Dublin were beating Tyrone at half-time and knew it was up to us to get into a league final," said wing-back Donal Vaughan. "We couldn't be relying on anybody else. And if we were going to win it, it would be ourselves that would win it."
Mayo duly delivered a blistering second-half display to make that final. There were similar scenarios at other venues as the National Football League edged towards its finale with teams across all four divisions involved in high drama.
Kerry needed to pull out all the stops to avoid relegation. In a tight game, they prevailed against Monaghan who also avoided the drop because of Tyrone's defeat. Players from both teams punched the air when the final whistle sounded in Killarney. In Omagh, meanwhile, having made an impressive but futile push to make the Division 1 decider, Dublin were nonetheless delighted to have claimed such a big scalp away from home.
In second tier, Donegal were in with a real shot of making that final until they downed their weapons and were blown away by Armagh. In Division 3, however, calculators were at the ready all afternoon; Wexford needed to beat Antrim to reach the decider and while they won, they agonisingly missed out through scoring difference as Antrim and Sligo both went up.
Below them, Division 4 commanded every bit as much attention and intrigue as the rest when Waterford earned a truly historic promotion by beating their closest rivals, Clare. Limerick also secured a last-day win to join them.
It was a great last weekend of drama for the league, whetting the appetite nicely for the start of the championship next month. Sadly, though, as the curtain falls on the National Hurling League group stages today, there is no such theatre in store.
Out of the four Division 1 games available to the paying spectator, three are totally meaningless. Division 2 is only marginally better, for it will be a calamity if both Clare and Wexford don't win and make the final. In fact, today's programme is so drab it would test even the most enthusiastic of marketers. Hello and welcome to 'Dead Rubber Sunday'.
The only worthwhile top-tier game on view is a Dublin-Limerick relegation dogfight between an emerging county and a second-string Shannonside outfit whose best players are on strike.
It's hardly ideal, either, that Galway face Cork just a couple of weeks before their league final decider. There were calls from some quarters to have today's game postponed to spare us the shadow boxing. Instead, Galway have made 15 changes to their team and expect Cork to be in full experimental mode too.
"It's an unusual backdrop to the game but it's a great position for both teams to be in," Galway manager John McIntyre said. "I think both sides will hurl with a bit of reckless abandon that we probably won't see a fortnight after that."
GAA president Christy Cooney admits it's unfortunate that this year's Division 1 finalists are also meeting this afternoon. "It's the way things have worked out," he said. "We had a very competitive hurling league, it's just been unfortunate that the final games don't give a result for the final. But we are where we are. I'm sure Cork and Galway will use the game to try out some players at Pearse Stadium and then we should have a humdinger of a final."
Perhaps we will, but there's no disguising that, yet again, today's closing fixture list is humdrum when it should be attracting spectators in their thousands. Over the years, the GAA have put the hurling league through so many facelifts and formations that it's hard if much more can be done. Maybe they've just been unlucky this season; after all, it was a decent league all things considered.
Even still, the competition shouldn't fizzle out to a total anti-climax. Maybe a slice of imagination or creativity could solve the problem. Pat Daly, the GAA's games director, is usually ahead of the posse with his vision for Gaelic games and perhaps some day his fixture template will be adopted.
His idea is pretty clear: hold a straight league with no finals but conclude the competition with a Super Sunday. On this final day, teams are awarded four points for winning their last game, two for drawing and none for losing. If teams are still tied on points at the end of the day, bonus points will decide the issue. Interestingly, Daly's idea suggests that those bonus points should be awarded on the basis of the amount of goals scored rather than overall scoring difference. This would only dish up more entertainment for the punter.
His model also recommends starting the championship two weeks earlier, playing a Champions League style format on a provincial basis, finishing the All-Ireland hurling final at the end of August and the football final no later than the first weekend in September.
This would free up time to complete the All-Ireland club championships before Christmas. Daly's plan is inventive but as a unit the GAA is slow to change. Such reluctance to look beyond the norm is partly why supporters will vote with their feet today, staying away in their droves as this menu of phoney wars is presented.
"It's not great but everything has just conspired to make this weekend meaningless," says former Wexford manager and Hurling Development Committee member Liam Griffin. "I'm in two minds over this. Okay, today is a damp squib, but Division 1 has been better this year than in ages. It really did have a competitive edge and Dublin did a fair job despite losing a few games. They're still emerging. You don't just walk up to the top straight away. But the gap, at least, is closing
"You could tweak it, though. I'd recommend returning to the old system where the top two teams in Division 2 got a shot at a Division 1 quarter-final. I'd also relegate two teams from the top flight and automatically bring two up from the second tier. That way, you're almost guaranteed some drama at each end of both tables.
"What we have at the moment is an Irish solution to an Irish problem, or a hurling solution to a hurling problem. There is no such thing as a league final anywhere else in the world but here in Ireland, like we dealt with the Anglo-Irish Bank and Nama issues, we came up with our own solutions. We created league finals.
"This weekend, we've seen one side effect of that. Second-string teams will be put out for serious shadow boxing. That's one fall-out of staging league finals and we're just unlucky that every variable has conspired against us this time. I still think having a league final is good idea. Look at what we got last year. And there's still merit in our current format too. We'll take a hit today but we're not far off the right track."
Many will agree with Griffin that six out of seven rounds of this year's league were competitive. They'll also reason that baby steps are at least being taken by the GAA -- the National Fixtures Planning Committee hopes to iron out such anomalies as today's list.
But there are other options too. If Daly's formula is not the one for you, try placing the top team into the final and have the second and third teams' play off to see who joins them. Why not stage this play-off under lights a few days after the group stages end? At least it guarantees some excitement and relevance as the competition draws to a close.
If Division 2 was some way stimulating it might have grouted the cracks. But it's not. If either Clare or Antrim slip up (against Kildare or Wexford), there could be hope for the winners of Laois and Carlow of joining the big wigs at the top table. However, the chances of either midland side reaching the second tier final are extremely remote.
And that's where we're at. It's unfortunate that today's fixtures are meaningless. But it's also one hell of a disappointment.