Tuesday 15 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'The small tweaks that would boost provincial championship'

Seeding teams serves the needs of big guns but also devalues the competition

Niall Guiden, Dublin in action against Colm Coyle, Meath during the epic clashes in 1991
Niall Guiden, Dublin in action against Colm Coyle, Meath during the epic clashes in 1991
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

On the basis that every challenge, however manageable, must be assessed in detail, Jim Gavin and other Dublin strategists will, no doubt, undertake a reconnaissance mission at the Wexford-Louth game next Sunday.

At the same time, James Horan will probably be in Dr Hyde Park checking out Roscommon v Leitrim, the winners of which play Mayo in the Connacht semi-final.

Clare v Waterford in Ennis on Saturday will draw the attention of Peter Keane, even if the underdog duo have beaten Kerry only six times between them in championship history.

Diligent planning is central to the modern game, but here's a question: why do the provinces lay out their entire championship programmes SEVEN months before they start?

Their draws extend all the way to the semi-finals, so as far back as last October every county knew their full championship route. That's more significant than it might appear.

It enables counties on the easier side to adjust their training timetable accordingly, while a particularly difficult schedule for lower-ranked counties can have a deflating impact.

Leinster keep the previous year's semi-finalists out of the first-round drum and hand them another advantage by ensuring that they are not drawn against each other in the quarter-finals. Munster seed the previous year's finalists directly into the semi-finals.

What's wrong with an open draw, similar to what applies in Ulster and Connacht? If that pits Kerry against Cork (the usual final pairing) in the Munster quarter-final, so what? It's the luck of the draw.

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The same goes for Leinster. Why should the previous year's semi-finalists be given special privileges? It wasn't always like that.

An example of how the luck of the draw delivered possibly the greatest saga in championship history came in 1991 when Dublin and Meath, who had met in the previous five Leinster finals, were paired in the first round.

It took four games (two with extra-time) to find a winner of an epic series, which provided the GAA with a priceless promotional boost. In 1997, Meath (defending All-Ireland champions) were paired with Dublin (1995 champions) in the Leinster quarter-final. The argument that Leinster was more competitive back then and that applying an open draw now could make a mockery of the latter stages simply doesn't stand up.

Dublin's overwhelming dominance has left Leinster without a really competitive final for seven years, and the current system isn't closing many gaps so why not try something different?

A full open draw might pair Dublin with Kildare and/or Meath in the first round and quarter-final. And once St. Conleth's Park is redeveloped, presumably Kildare will show 'Newbridge or Nowhere' resolve to host Leinster Championship games. So instead of Dublin monitoring much lower ranked opposition in the first round, they could be in Newbridge or playing re-emerging Meath.

As it is, they have a first-round bye before playing Louth (fourth in Division 3) or Wexford (sixth in Division 4) in the quarter-final, with Kildare, Wicklow or Longford waiting in the semi-final. By then, Dublin will be back on home ground in Croke Park.

If an open draw applied in Munster, Kerry and Cork could be playing each other this weekend, instead of making notes about the opposition after being waved through the semi-finals.

Leinster and Munster claim they manipulate their draws for competitive reasons, but finance is an issue too since it's more lucrative to have the better teams meeting later on.

Open draws in Leinster and Munster would bring some new energy to the scene, as would a change of scheduling across all four provinces.

That involves not making draws for the quarter-finals in Leinster until the three first-round games are completed and applying a similar approach in the other three provinces for the semi-finals.

Louth and Wexford have known for seven months that the 'prize' for winning next Sunday is a clash with Dublin, the toughest draw of any county in the country. If it's Louth, they won't even have home venue.

Leitrim have been aware for just as long if they beat Roscommon (Division 1) in the Connacht quarter-final, Mayo (Division 1) await in the semi-final. It was a deflating thought to take through the winter. Kerry's giant shadow has loomed over Clare and Waterford for months too.

It would be fairer, more encouraging and beneficial from a promotional viewpoint to make the draws in October for the first rounds only.

Subsequent draws would be made after the completion of each round, thereby adding some freshness to the scene. Rightly or wrongly, the provincials won't be dismantled any time soon. While they remain, their potential should be maximised, which is not happening at present.


Waterford handed fresh motivation

Lose your first game and qualification will be difficult. Lose your first game at home and... well, you won't make it.

Since the round-robin format in provincial hurling is only in its second season, it's too early to be definitive on results patterns, but the ten counties in the Munster and Leinster campaigns are very aware of the need to make a good start, especially at home.

Limerick, Clare, Galway and Kilkenny all harvested full points from their 'home' games last year; Cork took three and Wexford two.

Waterford, whose home wasn't deemed good enough for Munster action, didn't really stand a chance, having had to travel to Limerick (v Tipp) and Thurles (v Cork) for games that should have been in Walsh Park.

They're back home this year (v Clare and Limerick), which greatly increases their chances of making the top three.

Despite that, and their run to the Allianz League final, they are favourites to finish bottom of the Munster table.

Now there's an added motivation for Páraic Fanning and his ambitious squad.

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