GAA faces real challenge with seismic changes next season
Fixtures upheaval and structural shift will have massive impact on both codes
Accusations of being slow to change have been levelled at the GAA over the years, but that certainly has not been the case in recent times, which have seen an extensive list of adjustments across various strands of the Association.
Nothing can compare, however, with what is to come in 2018, when virtually every competition will experience some alterations. Many are structural, while others relate to timing, presenting an overall package which will be very different to what's gone before.
Some of the changes are designed to create more room for club activity, while the organisational adjustments to the provincial hurling (round robin) and All-Ireland football (Super 8) series are being introduced with the aim of improving the competitions.
They will certainly generate more games, but there are mixed views about the wisdom of tampering with the Leinster and Munster hurling championships and the closing stages of the football campaign.
The new calendar effectively leaves five months (April and September to December) free of inter-county activity.
Here's a summary of the main changes...
Both the football and hurling competitions start on the weekend of January 27/28. That's a week earlier for football and two weeks earlier for hurling than last year. There will be more double-up weekends, four in total, thus clearing the way for much earlier finals.
The Division 1 hurling decider will be on Saturday March 24, four weeks earlier than last year, with the football finals on March 31/April 1, a week earlier than this year.
The hurling final will be played under floodlights on a Saturday evening to avoid a clash with Round 7 of the football league.
The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) offered the following rationale for choosing the Saturday option: "We felt that it would be wrong to schedule both (hurling final and Round 7 football) on the same day and, to that end, it was obvious that either the final round of the football league or the hurling final needed to be on a Saturday.
"Given the availability of suitable venues with floodlights in the southern half of the country, it was felt the time was right to trial the playing of the hurling final on a Saturday evening. We feel that there is a terrific marketing opportunity there for the playing of a national senior final under floodlights."
Apart from the NFL Division 1 and 2 finals on April 1, the month will be free of inter-county activity for the first time.
PROVINCIAL FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS
Apart from the Connacht first-round game in New York, the provincial football championships usually started on the third weekend in May. They will begin in the second week of May in 2018, leading to earlier finals as follows:
June 17: Connacht (July 9 this year).
June 23 (Saturday): Munster (July 2 this year).
June 24: Leinster & Ulster (July 16 this year).
PROVINCIAL HURLING CHAMPIONSHIPS
They will undergo a significant change, with five-county Leinster (Galway, Dublin, Kilkenny, Offaly, Wexford) and Munster (Clare, Cork, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford) campaigns played off on a round-robin basis. The top two will play in the finals, with the winners qualifying for the All-Ireland semi-finals, while the losers enter the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
The third-placed teams in Leinster and Munster will play the finalists from the Joe McDonagh Cup tier (Antrim, Carlow, Laois, Meath, Kerry, Westmeath) in a preliminary quarter-final.
The Leinster 'round robin' will begin on May 12/13, with Munster starting on the following weekend. Both finals will be played on July 1 (same as last year for Leinster, a week earlier for Munster).
The CCCC explained that the controversial decision to play the Leinster and Munster hurling finals on the same day arose from the need to avoid a six-day turnaround in the football championships.
"This has never been done before as CCCC and the provinces had always sought to maximise our opportunities to promote hurling in the context of a championship that had few enough high-profile games in the early part of the season," explained the CCCC.
"However, given the number of high-profile hurling games that will be staged in the provinces in 2018, we do not see the same issues arising as might have in previous years, had such a proposal been floated."
ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIPS
There's a big change in the format, with the last eight (four provincial winners and four qualifiers) playing off on a round-robin basis to provide the semi-finalists.
The first phase of round-robin games will be played in Croke Park on July 14/15. The next two rounds will be played on July 21/22 and August 4/5, with each county having one home game.
The All-Ireland semi-finals will be played over one weekend (August 11/12), with the final on September 2, two weeks earlier than up to now. It's planned to have the final on the last Sunday in August from 2019 on.
ALL-IRELAND HURLING CHAMPIONSHIPS
The quarter-finals will be on July 15, a week earlier than this year. The semi-finals will be played over one weekend (July 28/29), two and three weeks respectively ahead of this year. The final is scheduled for August 19, two weeks earlier than this year.
The U-21 grade has been changed to U-20. The new competition will be played over the summer (the final was played on the first Saturday in May this year), with the final on the first weekend in August.
There's no change to the age limit. Galway and some Ulster counties will play in the Leinster championship. The All-Ireland final will be played on August 25/26, two weeks earlier than before.
MINOR HURLING AND FOOTBALL
The age limit has been reduced from U-18 to U-17 and will run in the same time slots as before, with the All-Ireland finals maintaining their traditional position as curtain-raisers to the senior finals.
The Leinster and Munster hurling winners will qualify for the All-Ireland semi-finals, with the two losers and Galway entering a three-way play-off to provide the other two semi-finalists.