League facelift may see return of semi-finals
THEY have experienced more surgery than an operating theatre over the past 15 years and now the National Leagues are facing the knife again.
Saturday's Central Council will consider reinstating semi-finals in Division 1 of the hurling and football leagues. For the past three seasons in football, and two in hurling, there were no league semi-finals. Instead, the top two counties qualified directly for the final.
That was designed to complete the leagues as early as possible and leave more time before the start of the championships. However, it hasn't been universally popular -- especially in hurling -- hence the proposal to re-instate semi-finals.
A particular problem arose this year when Cork and Galway had already qualified for the Division 1 hurling final before they were due to meet in the final round of games. However, they had to complete the fixture and, with both counties fielding weakened teams in what was essentially a meaningless game, the attendance was less than 500.
The Kilkenny-Waterford and Offaly-Tipperary games on the same day were also irrelevant in league terms, as none could reach the final, while all four were safe from relegation. The only meaningful game was the relegation clash between Limerick and Dublin.
Had semi-finals applied, five of the eight counties in the group would have been in contention going into the final series of games.
In football, Cork had qualified for the final before their last Division 1 game against Mayo, who needed to win to reach the decider. Cork left out several regulars and Mayo won by five points, squeezing out Dublin, who beat Tyrone on the same afternoon.
If semi-finals are restored in Division 1, they can't apply until 2012 as it would take a Congress decision to change the regulations.
Central Council has the power to decide on league formats, but are restricted by rule to running Divisions 1, 2 and 3 over eight weekends. It takes seven rounds to play off the divisional games, allowing just one more weekend to complete the competitions.
The restoration of the semi-finals would increase the running time to nine weekends, but that requires a change of rule, which is a Congress function.
While news of yet another overhaul of the league structures won't come as a surprise after a few seasons where the absence of semi-finals was seen as negative, there will be a sense of bewilderment at the continued failure to devise a system that enhances the competition, while also satisfying the needs of counties.
The only consistent feature of the National Leagues has been the loyalty shown by sponsors Allianz, who have been involved for 18 successive seasons, making it one of the longest sponsorships in Irish sport.
The formats have been repeatedly changed in both codes over the years, but have only served to lessen interest in the closing stages of the competitions.
Recent history has shown that while there's big interest in the early stages, it tends to taper off. The removal of the semi-finals has further damaged the product, as have the annual claims by many team managers that the league doesn't really count.
The NFL staged four quarter-finals for several years up the 1990s, comprising four Division 1 teams, two Division 2 and one each from Divisions 3 and 4. Laois won the title from Division 3 in 1986.
The leagues have undergone a raft of alterations since then, including the scrapping of the pre-Christmas games in favour of running the entire competition in the February-May period. There were complaints that playing games in October-November-December added to the costs for counties and that public interest wasn't particularly high, since teams were often below strength.
The growth of the provincial club championships was another factor in the decision to play the leagues in the one calendar year. However, when combined with college and U-21 games, it resulted in a congested period between February and late April which, in turn, led to the scrapping of the league quarter-finals and semi-finals.
Now, it looks as if there will be another change with the semi-finals returning to the schedule. Their absence has led to a drop in revenue and since all league money is shared among the counties, it's in everybody's interest to have more games.
If semi-finals applied this year the line-up would have been as follows: Football: Kerry v Mayo; Dublin v Cork; Hurling: Galway v Kilkenny; Tipperary v Cork. All four would have been attractive -- and lucrative -- games, especially if played as double-headers.
One of the big negatives for the NFL over the last decade was Dublin's failure to reach either the Division 1 semi-finals or finals. As the top crowd-pullers for big occasions, Dublin's absence from the knock-out stages since 1999 has been significant in terms of profile and revenue.
It remains to be seen how Central Council react to a proposal to restore the semi-finals, although the odds are that it will be accepted, certainly in hurling.