Wednesday 19 December 2018

Comment: Unfairness in provincial football championship draws remains unchallenged

 

Mayo's David Clarke during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Galway at Elvery's MacHale Park in Mayo. Incredibly, Galway and Mayo have been drawn on the same side of the Connacht Championship in seven of the last nine seasons. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Mayo's David Clarke during the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Galway at Elvery's MacHale Park in Mayo. Incredibly, Galway and Mayo have been drawn on the same side of the Connacht Championship in seven of the last nine seasons. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Let the inequality begin. Even allowing for the playing numbers and resource imbalances between counties, the draw for the All-Ireland football championships should be keenly anticipated.

Sadly, that is not the case about tonight's draw (RTÉ2, 8.30) for the 2019 campaign, no more than it has been for a long time.

The inbuilt unfairness of the format continues to go unchallenged purely on the basis that the provincial championships have to be the starting point for the All-Ireland race.

For historical reasons, it's non-negotiable, with even the merest hint that the provincials be disturbed in any way putting their defenders on high alert.

When Christy Cooney was president he threw out the idea of equalising the four provinces into groups of eight in order to have a more even structure. That would have involved one county from Ulster and three from Leinster relocating to Connacht and Munster.

Despite the clear logic behind the proposal, silence followed in all four provinces, sending out a clear message that they didn't welcome any change, so another interesting idea didn't go anywhere.

The different number of counties in each province is an obvious discrepancy which cannot be corrected. However, Leinster and Munster include their own special arrangements which have a knock-on effect on the entire championship.

Munster seed the provincial finalists through to the semi-final draw, the impact of which on this occasion is that Kerry and Cork are guaranteed to be in the last four.

That, in turn, means that if one or other lose a semi-final, they will bypass the first round of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

It's one less fence to worry about if things go wrong, giving them an advantage over counties in other provinces, several of whom will start in Round 1.

Cork and Kerry can be paired in the semi-finals, although, remarkably, it hasn't happened since 2012.

And since neither loses to any of the other four very often, one win guarantees them a place in the last 12 in the All-Ireland race. How cosy is that?

Leinster seed their four semi-finalists (Dublin, Carlow, Laois and Longford this time) directly into the quarter-finals where they meet the winners of three first-round games and whichever of the seven receives a bye in the first round. The four semi-finalists are kept apart in the draw so none of the above four can be paired against each other in the quarter-finals next year.

It's a long way from the open-draw days which threw up Dublin v Meath and the epic four-game first-round saga in 1991. It means that Dublin, the best team in the country for all but one of the past six seasons, are handed an advantage by not being in the first-round draw.

It would be far more exciting - not to mention fairer - if all the Leinster contestants were in an open draw tonight as is the case in Ulster and Connacht (except for a rota system involving London and New York).

Galway and Mayo were paired in the quarter-final this year, leaving the losers (Mayo) in Round 1 of the qualifiers, territory where Kerry and Cork won't ever find themselves for as long as they keep reaching the Munster final.

Incredibly, Galway and Mayo have been drawn on the same side of the Connacht Championship in seven of the last nine seasons.

This will be the final year of Ulster's open-draw system. The two counties paired in the preliminary round tonight will be exempt from it in 2020-'21 in order to create a fairer spread of teams facing four games to win the title.

All four provinces are allowed to run their draws as they see fit without reference to Croke Park.

Local democracy prevails but the reality is that some counties in Munster and Leinster benefit over rivals in Ulster and Connacht where qualifying for the semi-finals or final carries no advantage for the following year's draw.

If that's the case in two provinces, why doesn't it apply to the others? And shouldn't Central Council have an input into the format to ensure uniformity across the country?

With the round-robin proving so successful in the Munster and Leinster hurling championships this year, it looks as if draws are a thing of the past.

The fixtures have been finalised in both provinces, with each county again guaranteed four games.

The campaigns will be run over an extra week next year to avoid cramming, which was the only substantial criticism levelled at the new format last summer. A decision has yet to be reached on whether the Leinster and Munster finals are played on the same day which was the unfortunate situation this year.

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