Fairness major casualty in head-to-head rankings
If the Allianz Leagues are judged by the number of teams with something to play for on the last day of the divisional games, the 2011 competition has been an outstanding success.
However, if they are assessed on the basis of fairness, they fail, because they have produced the wrong final pairing in Division 1 football and relegated two counties from the top two divisions who deserved to stay up.
First, the plus points. No fewer than 26 of 33 football teams (22 of 24 in the top three divisions) were either in with a shout of making the final or were involved in promotion/relegation battles going into the final round, ensuring a real crackle of excitement all over the country last Sunday.
It will be the same in the last round of the hurling league on Sunday, when seven of eight teams (Cork being the exception) in Division 1 are either chasing a place in the final or battling against relegation.
Happy days, then? Yes, in terms of how the leagues have built towards an exciting climax. But a definite no in regard to how placings are decided when two counties finish on equal points.
Up to two years ago, rankings were decided on scoring difference; since then, the head-to-head winner is placed higher. Consequently, Kerry, Monaghan and Sligo all lost out in football this year, while there are likely to be similar casualties in hurling.
If the scoring-difference system applied, Kerry, not Cork, would be in the Division 1 final against Dublin; Armagh, not Monaghan, would be relegated from Division 1 along with Galway; and Meath, not Sligo, would be relegated from Division 2 with Antrim.
Cork also benefited from the system last year, edging out Dublin for a place in the final, despite having an inferior scoring differential.
Scoring difference still separates counties where more than two finish on equal points. Laois, Donegal (Div 2) and Louth (Div 3) were beneficiaries this year, clinching promotion ahead of rivals on the same number of points.
There are two fundamental flaws in using head-to-head rather than scoring difference to separate teams. Firstly, the whole essence of league competition is how a team fares against all opposition. Scoring difference acknowledges that, head-to-head does not.
Secondly, home advantage often plays a role in helping a team to victory. It's unfair that the same result can return as a bonus later on.
Monaghan lost by one point to Armagh at the Athletic Grounds in February and would feel that if they'd had home advantage they would have won. Armagh and Monaghan both won two games but Armagh's head-to-head win gave them the edge despite Monaghan having a four-point better scoring difference.
Sligo finished on three points, level with Meath, who had beaten them in a home game in Navan. This victory helped Meath a second time when head-to-head came into play, even though Sligo had a better scoring difference.
Kerry had a six-point scoring difference advantage over Cork but lost second place on the head-to-head rule, having lost by a disputed point to Cork.
Missing a place in the final, in what would be a glamour occasion against Dublin, is a loss to Kerry, but dropping to Divisions 2 and 3 respectively, is even more damaging for Monaghan and Sligo: the impact continues into next season and possibly beyond.
There are so many permutations in the hurling league that the impact of head-to-head versus scoring difference won't emerge until Sunday evening, but here are two possibilities.
If Wexford and Offaly lose by the same margin to Tipperary and Kilkenny respectively, both will have won one game but Wexford will be relegated on the head-to-head rule. This, despite Wexford holding an eight-point scoring difference advantage.
Incidentally, the head-to-head clash, which Offaly won by two points, was in Tullamore.
Galway and Dublin are both on eight points, with Galway holding a one-point scoring advantage. If both (plus Kilkenny) win and Dublin rack up a sufficiently high return to overtake Galway on scoring difference they would still miss out on a final place.
They would have had a marginally better overall campaign than Galway but would be denied a chance to play in the final for the first time in 65 years.
There are enough inequalities in the championship system without introducing them to the league, which should reward performances throughout the entire competition as opposed to upgrading a few matches to a special status with far-reaching implications.
Bosses must unite behind Harte plan
MICKEY Harte continues to argue for change, so that provincial football champions who lose All-Ireland quarter-finals get a second chance. But why the silence from so many of his fellow managers? Most of them believe the current system is unfair but aren't nearly as vocal as Harte. Do they not realise the power they are capable of exerting? Some can wipe out club fixture programmes for months during the summer; if they got together on a national issue one suspects it wouldn't be long before change emerged.
Harte's case has unchallengeable logic. But having lost out amid a flood of spurious counter-arguments at Congress last year, there seems no great appetite to re-visit it, which is odd. Surely, history shows that persistence is the key to getting change in the GAA.
Croker splendour GAA's crown jewel
IT'S just over 19 years since the plans for the new Croke Park were announced. Critics claimed that building an 82,300 stadium was over-ambitious, especially the premium and corporate box levels on all three stands.
How wrong they were. The redevelopment has proven to be possibly the wisest business decision ever taken by a sporting organisation in Ireland. Croke Park continues to glorify the GAA, not just through its own games, but also a symbol of a broader vision.
Opening it up to soccer and rugby worked on all fronts (including providing €36m in revenue for the GAA) and next month it will host visits by Britain's Queen Elizabeth and US president Barack Obama. Another chance for the GAA to look out from its splendid home and for the rest of the world to look in.