Monday 23 April 2018

Martin Breheny: The power of the province

Underdogs' title glories highlight value of old format but reform still badly needed

Owen Lennon, Monaghan, lifts the Anglo-Celt cup
Owen Lennon, Monaghan, lifts the Anglo-Celt cup
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

THAT'S the provincial championships argument taken care of. The idea of dismantling them in favour of either an open draw or a round-robin system, involving groups of four, gets regular outings during quieter times on the GAA calendar but really it's a waste of time.

Perhaps the provincial boundaries could be tweaked – although who's going to tell some counties that they must end an age-old allegiance? – but in terms of the basic principle of regional structure, there can be no change.

The first three Sundays in July saw to that, providing joyous deliverance from lengthy droughts for Dublin and Limerick hurlers and Monaghan footballers and re-launching ambitions elsewhere.

And while London footballers had a painful collision with reality last Sunday, their Connacht adventure (followed by a qualifier outing in Croke Park on Saturday) has done more to boost overseas GAA activities than the heaviest investment.

Meanwhile, the post-match scenes in Croke Park, the Gaelic Grounds and Clones after the Dublin, Limerick and Monaghan wins reinforced the view that whatever faults they may have, the provincial championships retain a magic that could never be replicated by any other All-Ireland format.

If anybody was wise enough to invest €10 on a Dublin/Limerick/ Monaghan treble they would now be the happy owners of €14,280, a return which indicates how unfancied the trio were pre-championship. Where the rest of the campaign takes them remains to be seen but even if it ends next time out – and there's no obvious reason it should – they will still regard the season as a wonderful success.

Dublin (2011) and Limerick (2007) hurlers reached the All-Ireland semi-final and final respectively via the back door, while Monaghan footballers used similar means to qualify for the quarter-final in 2007, but it didn't provide anything like the same level of satisfaction for any of them as they are experiencing this year as provincial winners.

The emotion which was unleashed after Dublin, Limerick and Monaghan ended 52, 17 and 25-year waits respectively for provincial titles, plus London's big adventure, has electrified the championship in a way that would not be possible under a system that had only one piece of silverware.

Eugene McGee and his Football Development Committee, who are currently examining structural issues, including championship formats, will have noted the excitement generated in recent weeks but are conscious of the unfairness of a format where the four regions have varying numbers of counties.

Balancing the four provinces into four groups of eight solves that but would it be accepted? For instance, would Longford or Westmeath be outraged at the suggestion that they compete in the western championship? Would Carlow or Wexford contemplate a move south as part of the balancing action? Probably not.

Would Fermanagh or Donegal agree to leave Ulster, which would have to lose one county? Absolutely not. In reality, there's probably no way that the provincial system can be changed. Results over recent weeks have cemented the view that while it's not perfect, it still has too many positives to be discarded.

However, the question arises whether the exit point from the provincial championships should dictate the entry point to the All-Ireland qualifiers, as is currently the case. In years when Cork and Kerry are drawn on opposite sides in Munster, thereby virtually guaranteed to reach the final, they know that one of them will be in the last eight in the All-Ireland race and the other in the last 12.

Contrast that with Tyrone and Galway, who lost to last year's All-Ireland winners and runners-up respectively in May, results that despatched them to the first-round qualifiers, three rounds ahead of Cork.

One way of avoiding that type of inconsistency is to link league placings to the entry point for the qualifiers. The higher up the league rankings a team finished, the later they would enter the qualifiers, irrespective of where they were beaten in the provinces. That has the advantage of rewarding counties on the basis of merit rather than geography while adding an extra competitive edge to the league, which would now have a direct bearing on the championship.

It's worth considering, now that the provincial championships have asserted their primacy as the championship's bedrock.

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