Comment: Splitting League into five divisions would cut early-season congestion and curb weather chaos
If there was one silver lining GAA administrators could hang on to from yesterday's raft of postponements that claimed four All-Ireland club semi-finals at four Leinster venues, a Bord na Mona O'Byrne Cup final and a meaningless Connacht League match, it's that the heavens opened this weekend and not next weekend when the first double programme of Leagues matches sends the inter-county season into overdrive.
Those involved with the affected club teams - Kanturk, Middletown, Ardmore, Setanta, Michael Glaveys, Kilanerin, Moy and An Ghaeltacht - won't look at it that way of course, having set off on their journeys to Newbridge, Navan, Tullamore and Portlaoise from all four corners of the country. In some cases, especially supporters, those journeys were already complete from the night before.
There is an obvious cost attached to those supporters and to those teams that had booked buses and hotels in advance which won't be easily recovered.
In theory, those club games should be easily refixed for next weekend, but finding suitable venues that aren't housing any of the 33 League football or hurling matches will be a challenge.
With the intermediate and junior finals scheduled for Saturday, February 3 and the hurling finals in both grades the following day, the need is pressing.
The O'Byrne Cup final can be pushed on to the first break in the football League, the weekend of February 16-17. But any further disruption to the schedule over the first three rounds of the League could compromise that re-fixture.
Already the decision to squeeze the leagues by a further two weeks is resonating in real terms before a ball is kicked or pucked. The new schedules have left very little room for manoeuvre.
Weather will always be an impediment to fixtures at this time of year - even into February and March games have fallen by the wayside. But it has been a particularly testing start to the season for fixtures.
Two weeks ago, frozen pitches took out games in Ulster and Connacht; this week the Donegal/Armagh McKenna Cup semi-final was put off before the weekend cull.
The Longford hurlers had their Kehoe Cup second-round fixture with DCU/St Pat's postponed three times before it was eventually played on Friday night. The final against Wicklow 'B', fixed for Longford on Sunday, was another weather victim.
The inevitable calls to scrap the pre-season competitions and play less games in January, which my colleague Martin Breheny this week calculated was now the busiest month of the year for inter-county fare because of the earlier start to the leagues, have already gone up.
But pre-season games serve a purpose, and with the desire to create a 'free' April, rightly or wrongly, the threat of blockages increase within that compressed time-frame.
The solution may be found, not in extending that time-frame again, but in decreasing the number of games played within it.
The presence of 32 counties in the Allianz Football League provides a neat carve-up into eight groups of four, an order of merit of sorts that has never been too far off the mark when compared to Championship placings since it returned to that system at the end of the last decade.
But do there have to be four divisions providing such perfect symmetry to the programme of games just because it provides an easy mathematical solution?
Would a five-division league - three groups of six, two groups of seven - work better in the new landscape of compression of time to play inter-county fixtures?
On the basis that the better teams should last longer in the championship, the top three divisions could play off on a six-team basis, providing five games in the period between the end of January and the end of March, as opposed to seven now.
That would create two extra weekends for weather-affected fixtures to be refixed or, dare we say, return county players to their clubs on those two extra weekends to play meaningful league matches, something that just isn't going to happen with the current schedule.
Two groups of seven in the fourth and fifth divisions would obviously require teams to take a bye on certain weekends and would still require seven weekends to complete. And while that wouldn't provide any more time to accommodate weather-affected fixtures in those divisions, it would still apply the brakes to the schedule ever so slightly for the counties involved.
The re-introduction of hurling League quarter-finals - after proposals that they should be scrapped - was unwise in the context of such a congested February and March.
The 'solution' to the club v county crux was to play more games (eight in football, 17 in the top two hurling tiers, though the next three tiers have reduced numbers) in a shorter space of time.
And while that has dressed up the game v training ratio and created more time at the back end of the season for clubs, it has created potential air-locks elsewhere in the system.
Fewer League games can leave more time to breathe.