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GAA running out of viable options in bid to complete the leagues

Colm Keys


Protection of April 'club month' likely to put the squeeze on inter-county games

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Croke Park is to be used as a 'drive-thru' testing facility during the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Sportsfile

Croke Park is to be used as a 'drive-thru' testing facility during the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Croke Park is to be used as a 'drive-thru' testing facility during the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Sportsfile

What now for the Allianz football and hurling leagues, and the All-Ireland U-20 football semi-finals scheduled to fill the Croke Park void on St Patrick's Day?

The GAA's decision to suspend all activity until March 29 at the earliest takes out the last two rounds of the football league and the four finals. There's more. Much more.

It also takes out the concluding stages of the Division 1 hurling league - incorporating two quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final - and the finals and relegation play-offs in Division 2 and Division 3. This includes the 2A final between Kerry and Antrim which was fixed for Sunday, prior to the Dublin/Meath football league match at Croke Park.

Between everything, it's 47 games, with few windows of opportunity to get them played between now and the summer, assuming the championship schedule remains.

The GAA hasn't come to a commitment about if and when these games will be played. And how could they?

In the greater scheme of things there are, obviously, more important decisions to be made. But there are certain scenarios that will dictate what happens to these fixtures.

If, and it's a big if, the country was ready to crank back into action by March 29, the GAA would have already passed by the self-imposed deadline for conclusion of inter-county games prior to the exclusive window that has been set aside for club activity for the last two years.

Over four weekends in April, inter-county games have not been fixed. However, with weather interruptions it hasn't been possible to stick by that schedule in either of those last two years, with the hurling league final and Division 3 football final both going into the first weekend in April.

The appetite to eat into April and disrupt 'club month' is unlikely to be there. The desire, instead, may be to preserve April for clubs only and seek to squeeze in fixtures somewhere during the championship season.

Promotion

The least expendable games are the remaining two rounds of the football league. It could be that when the first of those two rounds are played, a clearer picture will have emerged about what games are more important in terms of promotion and relegation. Following this, a smaller programme can be identified, if a second round was to go ahead later in the year.

In the recent past, the GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) has taken the decision to shelve games that didn't have a direct impact on promotion or relegation.

With April set aside for clubs, the first window of opportunity could present itself on the first weekend in May, a week out from the opening round of championship games.

Galway are due in New York and Roscommon are due in London on that weekend, May 2/3, for Connacht Championship games. However, some latitude could be given to play their sixth-round league games - Galway against Mayo (Division 1) and Roscommon against Armagh (Division 2) - on the last weekend in April.

How agreeable those four counties might be to that is questionable, but for league completion, it could be the first and possibly only step.

In any scenario, the football finals and the hurling play-off games are most unlikely to be played. Only those hurling finals with promotion at stake would be relevant with 2021 in mind.

How important is it for the leagues to be completed in light of the decision to apply this year's league standings to the make-up of the tier-one and tier-two competitions?

That depends on how great you think the need is to insert a tier-two competition into the schedule this summer.

The final league placings are unlikely to be known prior to the scheduled commencement of the tier-two competition on June 20.

That leaves the new Tailteann Cup in jeopardy and a candidate to be pushed back by 12 months, by which time it could be supplanted by a new fixtures format.

In that scenario, the GAA would revert to the same system that has applied for the last two years.

Completing the leagues at the back end of the season would prove too challenging on a couple of fronts: first, motivation among counties who have completed championship campaigns and second, the conflict with the height of club seasons.

The GAA's experience in finishing the league later in the season hasn't been good. The 1997 hurling final between Limerick and Kilkenny, played in October of that year, did not generate much attention.

If the remaining football league games can't be stitched in during the championship season then the league may have to be declared void, with all counties competing in the same divisions next year.

That would be tough on counties who have made progress, like Armagh and Roscommon in Division 2, Cork and Down in Division 3 and Limerick in Division 4.

Of course, the restriction on schools, public gatherings and advice on working arrangements from the Government could last much longer than March 29 and could lead to a rethink on the championship format itself. But for now, the leagues look like they will be squeezed out.

Irish Independent