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Big wins put focus on SFC's structure

AFTER the weekend just witnessed, some perspective. Championship annihilations are not a modern-day invention; they didn't suddenly loom into our horrified view last Saturday evening.

It's true that Kerry's 4-21 to 1-4 decimation of the Déise suggests Waterford football would be far better served playing in its own competition of equals. Yet this is the same lopsided Munster Championship that, back in 1979, gave us the Miltown Malbay Massacre – Kerry 9-21, Clare 1-9.

It's equally true that Dublin's 1-22 to 0-9 mauling of the Marooned reinforced what has become increasingly apparent this year; a growing gulf between the top-flight elite and Division 2.

But then the record books will remind you that Westmeath only take Dublin's SFC scalp once every 37 years (1930, 1967, 2004 ... do the maths!) and historically are more liable to be trounced, à la 1890 (6-11 to 0-1) or even 2009 (4-26 to 0-11).

Also, if this column were a hardened cynic, we might suggest that when a losing manager espouses radical Championship reform to address widening gaps between the best and rest, it is a brilliantly clever way to divert post-mortems away from analysing your own team's shortcomings.

That said, Pat Flanagan of Westmeath and Niall Carew of Waterford made several valid points on the Sunday Game as they reflected on their weekend tribulations and why the gulf is growing.

Money

In many respects, it is a case of rich versus poor – literally. The bigger, sponsor-friendly counties have more money to pump into strength-and-conditioning programmes, even at development squad level, never mind video analysis, nutritional programmes, etc.

You saw two classic examples of Dublin's greater power last Saturday as Paul Flynn sent a couple of Westmeath defenders sprawling with perfectly legitimate shoulders.

Flynn is a compelling mix of muscle and mobility, but that didn't happen overnight – years in the gym have added to his natural talent to make him the two-time All Star he has become in his mid-20s.

Perhaps the scary thing for all pretenders to Dublin's Leinster throne is that current U21s, who have made the step up under Jim Gavin, already look physically equipped for elite senior combat.

Again, this is no accident; Dublin are moulding the stars of tomorrow from their mid-teens. In that they are not alone as a discernible gulf has emerged between the current Top Six and the rest (bar a couple of possible Lilywhite and Mourne exceptions).

Weaker

The big question is whether the strong are getting stronger or the weak weaker? We're inclined towards the former, but any continuation of the recent trend has the potential to create a vicious circle as mid-ranking counties, not just the minnows, lose interest/players, resulting in ever-greater margins.

A decade ago, for example, the well-prepared likes of Laois and Westmeath could harbour realistic dreams of Leinster glory. Today that's a pipe dream.

The solution? You'd need a book to argue the pros and cons of various SFC reforms, but we've reached a tipping point whether the current structure merits serious examination. For example, how about retaining the provincial championships as stand-alone early-season events, replacing the leagues, followed by a new two-tier All-Ireland – 'A' and 'B' – with group stages feeding into knockout?

Surely that's worthy of deeper consideration ... so long as the counties who cry loudest when hammered by the big boys don't then turn up their noses at being asked to play in a 'lesser' championship that they might actually win. It's happened before – a minute's silence for the late Tommy Murphy Cup, please – but that was in a decade when Fermanagh and Wexford both reached All-Ireland semi-finals. The age of innocence is gone.


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