Fixture chaos may spell end for provinces
THE readjustment of the provincial inter-county championships in favour of a streamlined national system could be on its way as the GAA seeks a formula which would alleviate the chronic club fixture crisis.
With 15 county senior finals still to be played in the third week in October, creating huge uncertainty over the strength of the Irish International Rules squad travelling to Australia, there's serious concern that the current fixtures structures are unsustainable.
The start of the Leinster senior club football championship has already been put back by three weeks to November 13.
Fears are growing that GAA players will be tempted by the more predictable schedules enjoyed by rugby and soccer clubs, thus damaging Gaelic football and hurling at a time when competition from their global rivals is at its most intense.
The protracted provincial championships, complete with varying number of contestants and different running mechanisms, are seen by many as the main cause of a problem which is frustrating clubs all over the country.
The issue is now on the GPA agenda as they examine ways of improving the balance between club and county activity.
Replacing the provincial championships with a Champions League-style system is one of the options being considered. It would make for a much more structured format than exists in the provincial championships as each group would have the same number of counties.
Another option is to realign provincial boundaries so that each of the four regions had the same number of counties. That would involve some counties leaving their traditional heartlands and competing in neighbouring provinces, a possibility which has found favour at the highest level in the GAA.
Speaking at this year's Congress, president Christy Cooney acknowledged the role played by the provinces throughout GAA history, but pointed to the smooth transfer by Galway and Antrim hurlers into Leinster as an example of how positive adjustments could apply.
"We should ask ourselves whether there are further changes that we should be considering to our provincial championships and to our provincial structures generally. Do we need a more even spread of counties in each province?
"Should we dispense with the ancient geographical borders of the four provinces and seek instead to realign our provinces along more practical lines, in a manner that better suits the association's needs in the 21st century? Let's debate it and see what comes of it," he said.
The provincial councils would strenuously oppose any move to re-draw boundaries and have always refused to accept that their championship format is in any way responsible for club fixture logjams. Instead, they ascribe it to the failure of county boards to run their programmes efficiently.
Nevertheless, there's genuine concern over the amount of time given to the provinces to run off their senior championships.
The six-game Connacht SF championship ran from May 1 to July 17 this year, with Roscommon having a six-week gap between their first and second games. Meanwhile, Galway didn't enter the race until June 26, eight weeks after Roscommon's first game.
Ulster's eight-game championship ran from May 15 to July 17 as they continued their policy of playing one game per weekend.
Leinster hurling ran from May 15 to July 3, while Munster hurling's four-game schedule took six weeks to complete.
With many county managers insisting on having their players free of club activity for most of the inter-county championship, clubs are left idle for long stretches. It will be even worse next year when replays return to all championship games, replacing the system which applied in recent years, whereby all drawn games up to and including quarter-finals went to extra-time.
Indeed, there's an issue with the qualifiers and All-Ireland quarter-finals too, following the Congress decision last April to replay games which finished level, rather than play extra-time.
It's likely that Central Council will seek to have it revoked at the 2012 Congress, on the basis that replays could cause havoc with an already tight schedule.
The late completion of so many county championships has sparked off a big debate on how the GAA combines its club and county programmes, with a growing view that the provincial championships need to be addressed as, in the main, they totally dominate the schedules between early May and mid-July, often in a haphazard manner which adds to the frustration of club players.