Friday 24 November 2017

Fiery start gives kiss of life to provinces

Return of old powers and rivalries renews appetite for much-maligned competitions

Damien Comer of Galway celebrates with Rian Sheridan, aged 4, from Athenry, Co Galway after the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Galway and Mayo at Pearse Stadium, in Salthill, Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Damien Comer of Galway celebrates with Rian Sheridan, aged 4, from Athenry, Co Galway after the Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Galway and Mayo at Pearse Stadium, in Salthill, Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

By now, that part of the season should be in full swing, where the production of new championship proposals appear and reappear ad nauseum, along with a suite of ideas and debates as to how to help weaker counties amidst the annual grinding of teeth over the rich getting richer.

Year after year, with the emergence of the big guns in the provinces in early June, it has become a recurring theme. And the provincial championships have felt dispassionate and chill winds blowing harder in their direction.

Let's face it, when the league shuts down in early April there's been a sense of auto-pilot about competition until early July.

But those winds have softened somewhat this year and the much-maligned regional competitions, in hurling and football, have pushed back against the tide of negativity that has swamped them for so long.

Last weekend there were local derbies in all four provinces and while quality may have been an issue in some, the levels of competitiveness were such that they produced a draw (Offaly-Westmeath), two one-point games (Galway/Mayo and Tipperary/Cork), and an Ulster quarter-final between Monaghan and Cavan where just the genius of Conor McManus divided them, courtesy of his opportunist goal.

In Ennis, for a fourth game of a Munster football championship that had already produced three one-point winners, 14-man Kerry had to dig deeper than they might have expected to reel in a wind-assisted Clare who were two points clear early in the second-half.

Kerry's commitment to a heavy programme of local fixtures - that has seen the club championships completed and the county championship down to the last eight, in the aftermath of the league - may have been a factor as preparations are clearly tapered for later in the year. But Clare still ensured that they nudged their progression graph up another notch.

Transformation

And that's before the scenes in Wexford Park are brought into the equation, where Davy Fitzgerald has engineered quite a transformation in the eight months he has been there, instilling an attitude that has allowed them to take down Kilkenny twice in just over two months, not something many managers can claim against Brian Cody over the last 19 seasons.

Fitzgerald has had to reach into Leinster to really prove what a top manager he is.

On top of Cork's victory over Tipperary in a Munster quarter-final, it already has the 2016 All-Ireland finalists spiralling towards the qualifiers together, as they did in 2013.

The scenes that unfolded in Wexford Park and Pearse Stadium - where Galway delivered their first home win over their great rivals in a championship game in 10 years, to condemn Mayo to absence from two consecutive Connacht finals for the first time in 40 years - provided a gentle kiss of life to the provincial structure.

Galway and Mayo delivered a game full of blood, thunder and mistakes that kept levels of engagement high throughout, while Monaghan and Cavan was far more liberating than anyone could have anticipated after their 0-7 apiece Division One draw in Castleblayney in February.

We're not suggesting for a minute that three or four venues over the weekend provided a cure to all provincial ills. But if provincial councils were to pick two counties to make a sustainable resurgence in either code, the Wexford hurlers and Galway footballers would be near the top of most, if not all lists.

The footballers of Kildare and Meath might feature too given how they've allowed Dublin to stretch so much further ahead of them than tradition and history would suggest.

But their meeting too, away from Croke Park in a Leinster championship for the first time in 30 years, has the potential to sustain the feel-good factor given how they combined to score 1-48 between them in their quarter-finals.

The following day Tyrone and Donegal renew their tetchy Ulster championship rivalry that has seen them meet every year, except 2014, since 2011.

Whatever your taste for the type of football it might produce, there'll be a strong curiosity attached to every move between two of the championship's genuine heavy-hitters.

The issue with provincial championships in football, notwithstanding the skewed numbers that sees twice as many counties in Leinster as Munster, has been the fall-off of once-competitive powers like Galway, Meath, Kildare, Down and Armagh, who have all contested All-Ireland football finals in the last 20 years, and Wexford in hurling.

The spread of potential winners in each of the four football provinces remains limited but the right teams have clearly started to move in the right direction to offer respite, however brief.

The Club Players Association have already pitched a provincial-free structure at the GAA that would see a 14-match (10 in hurling) home-and-away league based on two tiers of two divisions - leading to the emergence of quarter-finalists, to align better with the club programmes.

It would be a clean, orderly break from what's there but the question for any potential change is whether scenes like Wexford Park and Pearse Stadium over the weekend would be diluted too much.

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