Wednesday 20 February 2019

Martin Breheny: Super 8s riddled with flaws - there are four problems that were completely overlooked at congress

Excitement over new system ignores serious weaknesses that weren't even discussed

Galway’s Damien Comer, Mick Fitzsimons of Dublin and Kerry’s Shane Enright at yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC Series launch at Dún Aengus on the Aran Islands. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Galway’s Damien Comer, Mick Fitzsimons of Dublin and Kerry’s Shane Enright at yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC Series launch at Dún Aengus on the Aran Islands. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Whether it was the lure of a guaranteed home game, a sense that the hankering for change needed to be indulged or the slick sales pitch, opposition to the 'Super 8s' proposal mustered little support, publicly at least..

Indeed, Dermot Earley, then CEO of the GPA, was the only speaker against it at Congress 2017.

Even then, he argued that there hadn't been sufficient consultation with players and that the new system offered nothing for lower-ranked counties, as opposed to questioning the actual package.

Curiously, a quarter of the delegates (around 75) voted against it, yet apart from Earley not one of them spoke. How gutless was that? One in four thought it was a bad idea, yet remained silent.

That's 17 months ago and now the time has come to see how the Super 8s actually work. The provincials and qualifiers have largely kept their side of the bargain, delivering seven of the top eight finishers in the Allianz League. Mayo are the only Division 1 county from last spring to miss out, replaced by Roscommon, who finished top of Division 2.

Given Mayo's gallant attempts over the last seven seasons, it's unfortunate that they aren't involved but then it was always likely that some top team would lose out. That apart, the line-up is as good as it could be, but is the new system?

Hopefully, it will be a spectacular success, climaxing in a dramatic final round, with all eight counties still in contention. Alternatively, some - or indeed all - of the semi-finalists could be decided before the final round, which would be disastrous for the new format.

If I had a vote at Congress, I would have gone against the Super 8s for four reasons, none of which were even mentioned in what turned into a show of acclamation as opposed to a critical analysis.

1. The time for round robin series is at the beginning of a competition, not when it has reached the last eight.

2. Instead of being positively recognised for remaining unbeaten, provincial champions are being disadvantaged.

3. The Dublin issue, specifically that they will have two home games while the other seven have one each, was ignored.

4. The likelihood of 'dead rubbers' in the final round. It would not only demean the All-Ireland race at this advanced stage but could also disadvantage one or more teams in the semi-finals.

Most major international events, as in the soccer and rugby World Cups, use the round robin series at the beginning, thus guaranteeing every team three games before heading into a straight knockout.

There's a good reason for that. Every team gets a good chance to take their case to a certain stage, after which room for error or excuse is removed. That's what the concluding stages should be about: a cold, hard winner-takes-all format.

Instead, if results were to go a certain way in the Super 8s, it will be possible for a team to lose two of three games and still qualify for the semi-finals on scoring difference.

How credible is that? A team loses two of three games at the quarter-final stages of a sport's premier competition and still reaches the semi-finals.

And if it involved one of the qualifiers, it would mean they were in the last four despite losing three times.

My contention that provincial champions are being disadvantaged is based on the sequencing of games. Dublin are in the privileged position of having their first and third games in Croke Park but Donegal, Galway and Kerry won't have a home game until the final round, by which stage any of them could be out contention.

Surely, winning a provincial title should be recognised by having the champions at home in either the first or second rounds. Instead, that benefit falls to the four qualifiers in the second round.

Playing the four provincial winners against each other in Round 1 and leaving the provincial champions (Dublin apart) until last for home advantage is designed to cut the risk of dead rubbers.

It may not even achieve that but, even if it does, provincial champions have every right to feel aggrieved that the sequence gives qualifiers an advantage.

As for Dublin's two home games, it's makes a mockery of fair play, but then the Congress sheep didn't 'baa' a single objection last year when they all knew that it was virtually certain to be an annual occurrence.

The dead rubbers concern has two strands. A game that's irrelevant to one side at such a late stage of the championship damages the overall image.

Also, if one county has qualified ahead of the final round and plays a weakened team in order to rest players before the semi-final a week later, it would seriously damage the championship's credibility.

Hopefully, that scenario - or indeed dead rubbers - won't arise, but the risk is there while the clear advantage to Dublin and the disadvantage to the other provincial winners is built into the system.

Here's to a great series, but it's starting from a flawed basis.

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