Sunday 18 March 2018

Martin Breheny: Get ready for the prospect of meaningless matches at height of the Championship from next season

30 July 2017; Thomas Flynn of Galway is tackled by Paul Geaney of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
30 July 2017; Thomas Flynn of Galway is tackled by Paul Geaney of Kerry during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Amid all the drama of the Mayo-Roscommon draw, a full house expected in Croke Park on Saturday for Dublin v Monaghan and Armagh v Tyrone, followed by the Bank Holiday Monday replay bonus, it's going largely unnoticed that this is the end of an era in football.

After 16 years, the knock-out quarter-finals are on their final circuit, being replaced next season by a round robin six-game series, involving the four provincial winners and four qualifiers.

With the 2017 quarter-finalists now known, here's how they would line up if the new system were in operation this year.

Group A: Kerry, Roscommon, Monaghan, Armagh.

Group B: Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo, Galway.

The two groups would play off in league format, with the top two in each qualifying for the semi-finals.

The first round would feature the provincial champions (Kerry v Roscommon and Dublin v Tyrone) in Croke Park, after which each county would have one 'home' and one 'away' game.

In an ideal situation, the final round of games would decide the semi-final placings but how often will that actually happen?

It's far more likely that one county will lose their first two games and while it might be mathematically possible to still get a top-two finish, the odds are high. That would leave at least one team with nothing to play for in the last round while the opposition needed to win to reach the semi-finals. It hardly makes for a cracking contest.

Another scenario is that two counties win their first two games, in which case the last series of games would be completely meaningless.

A county with no chance of reaching the semi-finals going into the last round of group games would almost certainly find many of the squad complaining of mysterious injuries rather than play in a game of no consequence to them.

Congress voted on a 3-1 majority to introduce the new football format, so clearly the possibility of meaningless matches didn't influence them in any way.

When it happens - as is almost certainly the case - the mood will change. The argument that the new system must be given a chance before being challenged ignores the reality that flaws are built into it, including where if results go a certain way, one win from three games would be enough to reach the semi-finals.

And if that team had already lost a provincial game, they would find themselves in the All-Ireland semi-final despite having been beaten three times. Surely that devalues the All-Ireland brand.

For all that, the round robin is on its way in football next year and is now mooted for hurling too, albeit at a different stage. It's proposed for the Leinster and Munster championships, each with five competing counties.

The two provinces would be run off as leagues, with the top two qualifying for the finals. The winners would qualify directly for the All-Ireland semi-finals, with the losers playing third-placed teams in the quarter-finals.

The prospect of each county being guaranteed two home games in the provincials is a big selling point but there are negatives too.

With the current system, losing a game ends a team's ambitions of winning the provincial title, even if they still remain in the All-Ireland race. Under the round robin format a team could, in certain circumstances, lose two provincial games and still win the title. What impact would that have on crowds? This year's four Munster games drew an average of almost 32,000, underlining the drawing power of the traditional system.

It started with more than 30,000 at Tipperary v Cork, a turnout that almost certainly would not be matched for the first game in a round robin series. There are structural problems with five-county provincials too. It's OK in Munster which has five counties of equal standard, while Kerry are happy to go elsewhere to compete against teams of similar stature.

Kilkenny, Wexford, Dublin and guests Galway would take four slots in Leinster, with Offaly filling the fifth next year. That excludes Laois, Westmeath, Carlow and Meath, who would join Antrim and Kerry in a second tier, with the winners being promoted to the Leinster five in 2019.

It's highly likely that Offaly would be relegated, meaning that a county with four All-Ireland titles between 1981 and 1998 wouldn't even be allowed to compete in their own provincial championships. Imagine the deflating impact that would have.

The hurling fraternity need to reflect hard on the round robin plan, with stronger counties doing what's right for the overall game as supposed to merely serving their own interests.

The championship was working well but once a round robin entered the football arena pressure grew for more small-ball action too. Surely, the wise course is to wait and see how it works in football before adding it to hurling too.

It's only two years since Congress refused Leinster permission to start their football championship on a round robin basis. Now, it's to be introduced for the All-Ireland quarter-finals and, quite likely, for the provincial hurling championship too. What made it so popular so quickly?


Subscribe to The Throw-In,'s weekly Championship podcast, for the best in GAA discussion and analysis every Monday, with some of the biggest names in football and hurling from Joe Brolly, Tomás Ó'Sé, Brendan Cummins and John Mullane.

Subscribe and listen to The Throw-In podcast on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport