Saturday 23 November 2019

The five different provincial formats ahead of tonight's 2016 Championship draw

They all feed into the All-Ireland championship so why the variations?

Cian O’Neill says his new role as Kildare football manager is ‘the perfect fit’
Cian O’Neill says his new role as Kildare football manager is ‘the perfect fit’
Nowlan Park, Leinster
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

No fewer than five different formats will apply in six provincial competitions when the draw for the 2016 GAA senior championships is made 'live' on RTE2 tonight (8.00)

With the football championship formats currently under review, the variation in the systems used by the four provincial councils is coming under increasing scrutiny. They feature complete open draws, 'round robin' and rota systems for early rounds, plus byes to quarter-finals and semi-finals.

With some exceptions, provincial councils are allowed to run their championships as they see fit, without any reference to Croke Park or each other.

It underlines the autonomy the councils enjoy while also highlighting the discrepancies between the challenges faced by some counties, depending on their provinces.

This year, for instance, Donegal had to beat Tyrone, Armagh and Derry to reach the Ulster final, whereas Kerry and Cork qualified for the Munster final with wins over Tipperary and Clare respectively.

A number of submissions have been sent to Croke Park suggesting changes to the championship format, but given the complexities involved, it's unlikely that there will major adjustments, certainly not in the short term.

Nonetheless, as tonight's draw will show, the lack of uniformity in the systems raises questions as to whether they should be subject to central control.

The following are the systems that apply to tonight's draw.

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Connacht SF

The cycle which sees each of the five 'home' counties play New York and London in rotation will send Roscommon to the US and Mayo to Ruislip next year. Otherwise, it's an open draw.

A rather strange situation arose this year where Galway, who played New York in the preliminary round, faced Leitrim in the quarter-final.

Galway's semi-final clash with Mayo was their third game, while the defending champions were having their first outing. Mayo retained the crown with two wins while Sligo lost the final in their second game. Meanwhile, Galway would have had to win four games to land the title, which seems rather odd in a seven-team competition.

Leinster SF

Having reached this year's semi-finals, Dublin, Westmeath, Meath and Kildare will receive a bye to the quarter-finals, leaving Carlow, Wexford, Wicklow, Louth, Longford, Offaly and Laois in the first round draw. One of the seven will receive a bye to the quarter-finals.

The Leinster Council were keen to introduce a 'round robin' system among some of the weaker counties but had their proposal vetoed by Congress this year. The decision smacked of inconsistency since a 'round robin' system has been in operation in Leinster hurling for a few years.

Munster SF

Kerry and Cork, who contested this year's final, receive a bye into next season's semi-finals, where they will be joined by two from Clare, Limerick, Waterford and Tipperary.

It's a very comfortable situation for the 'Big Two' since they know that they can't be involved in the All-Ireland first round qualifiers. And since they rarely lose to any of the weaker four, they are virtually guaranteed to be in the last eight and last 12 respectively, depending on the result of the final.

It's the ultimate luxury which, understandably, is regularly put forward as one of the reasons why the primacy of the provincial championships in the Ireland series is unfair.

Ulster SF

No rotas, restrictions or byes - it's the only province that runs its football championships on the luck of the draw. It adds to the appeal of a campaign that's by far the most competitive.

Four counties (Donegal 3, Tyrone 3, Armagh 2, Monaghan 2) have shared the last 10 titles while Cavan is the only county not to have reached the final in that period. Avoiding a preliminary round tie is a bonus.

Tyrone have been drawn in the opening round for the last two years while Donegal have been there in three of the last four seasons. Monaghan have been the luckiest in that regard, having last been drawn in the preliminary round in 2004 while they beat Armagh, the then All-Ireland champions.

There was a time when Ulster operated a rota system so that each of the nine counties entered the preliminary round in turn. However, that was dispensed with favour of the unrestricted draw.

Leinster SH

As defending champions, Kilkenny have a bye into the semi-final. Offaly, Carlow, Westmeath and Kerry play in the round-robin, with the top two joining Galway, Dublin, Wexford and Laois in the quarter-finals.

Munster SH

There are no privileges for the defending champions so Tipperary will be in the open draw alongside Waterford, Cork, Clare and Limerick. Based on the law of averages, Tipp are due to be drawn in the quarter-final, having last been there in 2012.

Draw could decide if Dubs leave Croke Park

Dublin footballers could play a Championship game outside Croke Park for the first time in ten years if tonight's Leinster draw pairs them with opposition from the southern half of the province.

Outside of Croke Park, which has hosted all of Dublin's Championship game since June 2006 - when they beat Longford in Pearse Park - Nowlan Park, Kilkenny is the only Leinster venue considered suitable for a game involving the All-Ireland champions.

It has a capacity of around 24,000 but, crucially, it seats 17,000. O'Connor Park, Tullamore has 7,000 seats and O'Moore Park, Tullamore 6,000.

Dublin's dominance in Leinster, where they will be bidding for their 11th title in 12 years next season, has raised questions as to the fairness of playing all their games in Croke Park, which is, in effect, their home ground.

They have won their last nine Leinster games there by an average of 16 points. The average this year increased to 20 points in wins over Longford, Kildare and Westmeath.

Whether taking Dublin out of Croke Park would narrow the divide is a moot point but there's a view that it's worth trying.

Leinster CEO Michael Reynolds said that all Leinster counties had an input into where games were played and, up to now at least, there has been no great appetite for taking Dublin out of Croke Park. That could change if they were to be drawn against Wexford, Carlow or Laois in next year's quarter-final. Staging it in Nowlan Park would then become an option.

Playing Dublin's games in Croke Park makes financial sense for the Leinster Council, especially as part of double-headers, which are guaranteed big crowds. However, there's also the issue of the advantage that Dublin enjoy by effectively having every Championship game at home.

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