Monday 10 December 2018

Comment: Super 8s can learn from hurling's round-robins

Scheduling will be as big a factor in football quarter-finals as it has been in small-ball code

Peter Duggan signs autographs for supporters in Cusack Park where the electric atmosphere was typical of the success of the Munster round-robin series Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Peter Duggan signs autographs for supporters in Cusack Park where the electric atmosphere was typical of the success of the Munster round-robin series Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It remains one of the great anomalies that a process which set out to rebalance the chasm between club and inter-county space ended up with a 23pc increase in the number of inter-county games between senior and U-21 hurling/U-20 football levels.

Between an extra eight All-Ireland football quarter-finals, nine additional hurling matches when the rebalancing between the five tiers - MacCarthy, McDonagh, Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cups - is factored in and a doubling of the number of Leinster U-20 football matches as they opt for a round-robin competition, the number of games in total has leaped from 149 to 184.

True, the space afforded for club time has increased significantly as many of the counties now out of the championship have realised while the game-to-training ratio has also come down.

But the idea that the way to rebalance was actually to increase the activity in the very space that was ripe for shrinking was a curious one.

That said, the crowds and entertainment levels, in Munster hurling especially, appear to have vindicated such a dramatic overhaul in the last two seasons.

By Sunday evening some 203,465 patrons had gone through the turnstiles of the four venues that hosted the 10 games to date, up from 82,434 in the corresponding three games in 2017, a 146pc increase.

The dramatic draws involving Tipperary and Cork, Cork and Limerick, and Tipperary and Waterford were a throwback to Munster championships past and certainly the removal of sudden death, in a provincial championship context anyway, didn't dilute its competitiveness.

Even Cork's late hustle to take down a Waterford team with nothing to play for except pride had an edge to it.

And while Cusack Park in Ennis didn't live up to its billing, the atmosphere, by all accounts, did.

The GAA look to be on a winner with this new format but the caveat is that novelty will always deliver a quick, if not entirely sustainable, return.

When the football qualifiers were introduced in 2001, complete with All-Ireland quarter-finals, there was similar vibrancy and it increased supporter engagement.

Similarly, when the decision was taken in the 1990s to bring the hurling league into a calendar year format, crowds surged.

The Leinster hurling championship didn't enjoy quite the same drama but how different might that have been had Dublin kept their noses in front of Kilkenny on the opening day?

Leinster also had the strongest and weakest teams in its five-county division and that led to a greater imbalance that is likely to remain in the years ahead.

It still had the drama of Kilkenny reeling in Wexford down the home stretch as the home side, fresh from a weekend off, squeezed out a team that was in action for a fourth successive weekend.

As much as the new format has brought crowds and excitement, scheduling remains a big factor.

Four teams in each provincial round-robin group had to play on three successive weekends, two more in each group had to play on four successive weekends.

In those 12 games, only Galway triumphed on their third weekend of action against Dublin and even then they had to dig deep to achieve it despite being already qualified for a Leinster final.

None of the four teams involved for a fourth successive game, Offaly and Wexford in Leinster and Tipperary and Waterford in Munster, won their final game. In the cases of Wexford, Waterford and Tipperary they were each leading at half-time (Wexford by seven points against Kilkenny, Waterford by four points against Cork and Tipperary by four points against Clare) and were still clear at the three-quarter mark before losing ground in the last quarter and being overhauled.

Cork and Tipperary had each enjoyed a break the weekend before. Offaly were never mapped against Dublin.

For teams playing for a third successive week there were draws for Cork against Limerick, and Tipperary against Waterford but defeats for Limerick against Clare and Waterford against Limerick.

In Leinster, Kilkenny and Wexford both fell to Galway at the third attempt while Offaly bombed badly against Wexford third time out. So that Galway win over Dublin stands apart.

Is there a better way? Leinster chief executive Michael Reynolds, on these pages last week, pointed out the constraints within a programme that is, by rule, now designed to finish by the end of August.

He did float the prospect of an All-Ireland hurling final being played on the week after an All-Ireland football final, a real upending of tradition, but that would surely prompt a knock-on effect on the football championships which are already tight enough.

There is room for expansion in Leinster with a three-week break to the provincial final after the last round while Munster started their championship a week after Leinster which can also 'buy' a spare weekend somewhere.

Looking ahead to next month's All-Ireland football quarter-finals the system will at least be fairer with each of the eight teams featuring on the same weekend.

But scheduling will again play a part with the provincial champions lined up to play each other on the first weekend.

That, potentially, pits Galway against Kerry and Dublin against Donegal on successive Sundays in Croke Park, provided this weekend's provincial finals go along expected lines.

That appears to give more leverage and potential momentum on the opening weekend to those teams coming through the back door or picking themselves up after losing provincial finals.

In the early part of the season football has struggled badly in the slipstream of hurling in terms of coverage and entertainment.

In that respect the timing of the additional games couldn't be better for the game, even if, conversely, they were somehow conceived to give the club player a better deal!

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