Colm Keys: 'Jury still out on success of GAA's round robin format'
GAA fixture proposals are like snowflakes; there are many, but no two ever seem the same.
It's the season for them right now. With the imbalance of the provincial football championships – crystallised by a system that allows Cork to bludgeon Limerick and move themselves to within one win of an All-Ireland quarter-final, compared to Armagh, who could still be three games away after 270 minutes if they lose Sunday's replay with Cavan, and the hammerings dished out to Louth and Antrim last weekend – the now annual calls for change have grown louder.
Those changes look like they are now being heard loud and clear, with movement on two fronts. On a micro level, the addition of a second tier qualifier series looks like it will be put to a Special Congress later in the year with implementation in 2020, while a new committee will look at the structures and calendar at a broader level, with a view to having them ready for 2021.
If the committee looks around for guidance, they’ll find it everywhere and in every shape or form.
Finding common ground between all the proposals put forward and discussed will be much more difficult, if not impossible.
As the GAA president John Horan acknowledged last week, if it was easy, a solution would have been found a long time ago.
However, an effort on this scale has not been launched in the last two decades, notwithstanding the work of the Football Development Committee in 2012 and 2013 and the efforts of the previous director general Páraic Duffy to condense a multitude of reports and come up with the most recent incremental changes to the football and hurling Championships.
If there is common ground to be found, or rather common words, it is ‘round robin’. No proposal, it seems, is complete without them. Round robin provincial football championships in spring; round robin ‘Champions League’ style qualifiers in summer; round robin games for weaker counties in the provinces; expanded round robin in the summer to mirror the leagues in spring.
It is too early to judge, of course, and is best reserved for the three-year experimental phase that has been mapped out for both codes. However, the experience of this format since its introduction last year at different stages of both the football and hurling Championship has been mixed.
Last year's provincial hurling championships exceeded every expectation, of course, especially in Munster where there were three draws from the 10 games played, while the other seven games were decided by margins ranging from two to 11 points.
It looked like a magic formula had been discovered by simply pitting all these teams against each other on a regular basis.
This year, after six games only Clare's opening win over Waterford, and to a lesser degree Cork's defeat of Limerick, could be considered close. Between the awesome power of Tipperary and Waterford’s sorry demise, the promise of the most evenly balanced Munster Championship of recent times has been shredded.
It still has the potential to produce a big finish, especially with Waterford unlikely to mount any kind of resistance in Cork on Saturday night. And even if Limerick make home advantage count against Clare on Sunday, Clare will still have third place to fight for against Cork in Ennis a week later.
But in that scenario Tipperary and Limerick could have both fortified their place in a Munster final with their score difference.
Leinster has been better, with a couple of draws involving Wexford, and with Galway travelling to Nowlan Park and Kilkenny heading to Wexford Park, the last round will also carry strong relevance.
Still, there is no doubt that the same edge, so far, has not underpinned this year’s hurling Championship. The novelty of last year has worn a little thin.
In between, last year’s All-Ireland football quarter-finals didn’t exactly sparkle either.
But for David Clifford’s late intervention in Clones, the last round would have been a damp squib. As it transpired, Monaghan’s ease of passage against an already qualified Galway made corresponding events between Kerry and Kildare in Killarney irrelevant.
Round robins tick a lot of boxes: more games, margin for error on a given day and a spread of games that are more likely to produce the best teams in the top placings at the conclusion.
However, they have the capacity to remove that element of desperation that a team needs and for struggling outfits like Waterford, Cork is the last place they’ll want to go to next weekend if they couldn’t raise their game in front of a home crowd on Sunday.
Maybe the level of expectation after last year was simply too high for this year’s follow-up.
However, the jury on this format in a Championship context remains out for now.