Wednesday 17 January 2018

Provinces block road to lasting progress

John Greene

John Greene

T HE GAA championship begins in New York this evening but unfortunately, unless your county happens to be in action, there is nothing to truly whet the appetite of football and hurling supporters for another month. Even then, the stop-start nature of the fixtures programme means the championship won't sustain interest in any meaningful way until the end of July.

So, when the first games take place here two weeks from now, it is pointless pretending that they are anything other than the outbreak of a phoney war. In hurling, Laois will play Antrim and in football Donegal will play Antrim. These two games will hold little interest outside of the three counties involved.

This is the pattern for most of May and June, and also -- if people want to be honest -- July. Cork and Tipperary play in the Munster hurling championship on May 29, but as we saw with last year's game, this fixture has been grossly devalued in recent years. When Cork won in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last year it looked as if they had been the victors in a classic, epic Munster championship tie but, as the year progressed, that game became more and more devalued. What reason have we to think that this year's quarter-final between the two in Thurles will be any less insignificant?

In football, Dublin, Cork and Tyrone all make their appearance on the first Sunday of June, but again the question must be asked: what relevance will these games have? Glance through the fixture list and try to find a game between now and the beginning of July which will make people sit up and take notice. That, in effect, is the first eight weeks of the championship season wasted.

The biggest obstacle to addressing this glaring problem is the provincial system embedded in the GAA's structures -- not the qualifier system. At least the latter in both codes attempted in some way, however flawed, to redress the imbalances created by the provincial boundaries -- boundaries which have no real relevance in modern Ireland and which are no more than an anachronism, a remnant of the country's feudal past.

Take two counties in this year's football championship: reigning champions Cork, and Longford, who have never won an All-Ireland and have one Leinster title, back in 1968.

Whenever a microphone is put in front of Conor Counihan in the coming weeks, he will make polite noises about taking each game as it comes and all that guff. But he knows otherwise. He knows that after the exertions of last weekend's win in Croke Park, he can plan well ahead from now. Cork play Clare, the winners play Waterford, and the winners are in a Munster final and so Counihan (pictured) knows he is guaranteed football up to at least the end of July. Even when Cork weren't the best team in the country, Counihan could think along these lines. Longford were also in action in Croke Park last weekend, enjoying a rare win there. In three weeks they face Laois, the winners play Dublin, and the winners of that play Wicklow, Meath or Kildare to get to a Leinster final.

There is just no basis any more (if ever there was one) for this format to be allowed continue -- regardless of the second chance now offered to teams by the qualifiers. At Congress last month, GAA president Christy Cooney highlighted this issue in his address. His comments didn't get the level of scrutiny they merited because of his remarks about payments to managers, but they are worth revisiting.

"I believe it is time that we give some consideration to the balance that currently exists within the provincial structure," he said. "The inclusion of Galway and Antrim in the Leinster hurling championship has given a new dimension to that competition, as well as providing a more regular and appropriate championship games programme to the hurlers of these counties.

"In the context of the positive change brought about by their inclusion in Leinster, 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?"

Over the years, the provincial councils have become powerful bodies in their own right and one imagines it would be a difficult process attempting to push radical change on them.

At this stage, the GAA centrally cannot even impose a structure on how the four provinces arrange their fixtures to at least try and maximise their impact. Each council is autonomous and sets its own fixtures as it sees fit, instead of allowing for a more universal approach to at least avoid clashes of games which are of interest.

The most obvious solution, if provincial championships are to be retained, is to tweak the boundaries so that you have eight in each province. In that scenario, Westmeath, Longford and Donegal could join Connacht, and two south Leinster counties would move to Munster.

Of course, ultimately, the best format for both hurling and football championships would see the scrapping of the provincial championships -- although an argument could be made for keeping them as a subsidiary competition, not linked to the All-Ireland -- in favour of a league championship. In football, that would see four groups of eight teams, with the top two in each going into the All-Ireland quarter-finals; in hurling, there would be two groups of six, with the top two going into the semi-finals.

It is a fair guess though that we are a long way off that point in the GAA's evolution; it is hard to see the provincial councils rowing in behind it.

Turkeys will never vote for Christmas.

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