Tuesday 23 January 2018

Kerry sitting pretty as new qualifier system wobbles

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice can realistically start planning for an All-Ireland quarter final clash with Galway. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice can realistically start planning for an All-Ireland quarter final clash with Galway. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Eamonn Fitzmaurice will never admit it, but he would have been delighted with Mayo's win in last Sunday's Connacht final. It left Kerry with the near-certainty that they will be playing Galway or Tipperary in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The only other slim possibility for Kerry is that they would be drawn against Sligo if Pat Flanagan's boys pull off a 7/1 outsiders' coup against Cork.

It's not going to happen, so Kerry can start planning for a clash with Galway, who teetered on the edge of relegation from Division 2 in April before coming up well short against Mayo last Sunday, or Tipperary, who won promotion from Division 4.

There was a time when Galway would have been unbackable favourites to beat Tipperary, but not any more.

Tipperary ran them to four points in Pearse Stadium last year and they have improved since then as they showed against Cork – whom they came so close to beating – and against Longford and Laois, whom they out-gunned by a combined 22 points.

Whether it's Galway or Tipperary, Kerry will see it as a grand draw. They discovered their good fortune a full three weeks before the quarter-final, so they can toddle along to O'Connor Park, Tullamore at their leisure next Saturday week for the Galway-Tipperary game.

Meanwhile, as Kerry enjoy the second week of their latest term as Munster champions, while also knowing who they will play in the quarter-finals, Dublin/Meath and Donegal/Monaghan are planning for Sunday's Leinster and Ulster finals.

Obviously, they can't think beyond those challenges, which is a big difference from Kerry, who finished provincial business last Sunday week.

Mayo did likewise in Connacht last Sunday and knew straight away that they were virtually certain to face Cork in the quarter-final. Again, all neat and tidy, if not exactly the draw they would have wanted, even allowing for Cork's implosion in the Munster final. There's a lot more to the Rebels than that, as Mayo will find out.

Away from specific pairings, the big issue here is that the All-Ireland championship on the Connacht and Munster side is ahead of the Leinster-Ulster side. That's down to the new qualifier system, where teams were allocated to A or B sections and slotted in accordingly when they lost in the provinces.

Each section played off within its own group, greatly restricting the qualifier draw. Instead of 16 teams going into Round 1, they were divided into two groups of eight and so on all the way through, reducing as they went. So when it came to the quarter-finals, the pairings were tailored so that the Connacht and Munster winners were paired with two survivors from the A qualifier section, with the Leinster and Ulster champions drawn against the B survivors.

Confused? Join the vast majority of GAA people who haven't a clue how it works. It had been mentioned earlier in the year that if Kerry lost the Munster final and reached the All-Ireland quarter-final via a qualifier win, they would be taking on the Leinster champions.

And since Dublin were – and still are – expected to win Leinster, it was anticipated they would renew rivalry with Kerry in a quarter-final. However, since Cork were in a different qualifier section to Kerry, they couldn't play Dublin in the last eight. Instead they will meet Mayo if they beat Sligo.

The winners of Roscommon v Armagh and Clare v Kildare will play the losers of the Leinster and Ulster finals to decide who reaches the quarter-finals on that side of the draw.

The new system was introduced to (a) bring greater clarity to counties on when they had qualifier ties, thereby leaving more room for club activity; (b) create a more even spread of games and (c) avoid a situation where beaten provincial finalists had a qualifier tie six days later.

It may have achieved the two latter objectives but there's no evidence to suggest that it has improved club schedules. The downside is that by dividing qualifiers into two sections, it reduced the possible permutations.

Worst of all, it has virtually settled quarter-final pairings before Round 4 is played. You won't find Kerry complaining, of course, as (barring a major upset in the Round 4 qualifiers) they could reach the All-Ireland semi-final by beating Galway or Tipperary. It's the sort of draw Fitzmaurice would have picked it he were allowed to make it himself.

The new qualifier structure may look grand on paper but comes across all gangly and awkward in practice. It's akin to adding another hump to a camel and telling him he looks better balanced, even if the mirror shows otherwise.


Alcohol double standards hard to swallow

The head honchos in Guinness must be amazed by the difference in the reaction to their recently-announced rugby sponsorship deal for the Pro12 League and their involvement as backers of the All-Ireland hurling championship over many years.

Not a year went by when the hurling championship launch, which obviously involved Guinness as sponsors, didn't draw down unrelenting wrath on the GAA for their liaison with a drinks company.

Medical lobbies and assorted others, including high-minded media sorts, expressed annual outrage, loftily reminding the GAA of their social responsibility and castigating them for alleged lack of same.

It continued, even when Guinness no longer had the same profile as joint championship backers under a multi-sponsorship arrangement.

So where are all those who were so critical of the GAA now that Guinness are backing a rugby competition?

You would imagine that a new sports sponsorship deal involving an alcoholic drinks company would draw some response from them. But no, all is silent.

Different rules for different sports, then.


Life in fast lane a learning curve for Wexford

Wexford manager Liam Dunne was one of the staunchest backers of the controversial decision to allow as many teams from 1B as 1A into the Allianz League quarter-finals, on the basis that even one game against top-flight opposition would help 1B teams to adjust for the championship.

Wexford were well beaten by Kilkenny in the league quarter-final, but judging by their championship performances, they learned a lot from the experience. Indeed, after eliminating the reigning All-Ireland champions, Wexford appear very much at home in the fast lane.

It has been a good championship for four 1B teams. Cork are Munster champions, Limerick are in the quarter-finals, Wexford are in contention to join them while Laois came close to beating Galway. All of which suggests that the more often teams in the top 12/14 play each other, the better for those striving to drive up the ladder.

Irish Independent

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