Tuesday 17 September 2019

Contrast between Déise and Tribe highlights unfairness in league

Micheál Donoghue Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Micheál Donoghue Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Derek McGrath could never openly admit that relegation to 1B might be no bad thing for Waterford but he came close enough to it after their third successive Allianz League defeat last Sunday.

"There's a nucleus of 12 or 13 players that have played in every match under my stewardship in the past three years," McGrath said. "There's an influx of players now - the DJ Forans etc - and, in terms of growing a team in 1B, a sustained series of matches for some of these guys wouldn't be the worst for their long-term development."

Then, as if to rally his squad after recent disappointments, he pledged not to give up on 1A survival just yet. "We're prouder than that," he said.

Indeed, if Waterford were to beat Cork and Clare in the next eight days, there's a good chance they would not only avoid relegation but also book a place in the quarter-finals - such is the curious format of a league riddled with inequality.

The football equivalent runs straight and true, with the 32 teams separated into four groups solely on the basis of how they finished the previous year.

Hurling applies the same terms for divisional placings but has added a bizarre layer, where the prize for finishing first in 1A is the same as for fourth in 1B (nine places lower).

Both qualify for the quarter-finals, as do three other top finishers in 1A and 1B. For the last three years, the outright winners (Waterford, Clare and Galway) have come from 1B, proving that the top end of the second tier is as good as 1A.

Galway further underlined it by adding the Leinster and All-Ireland titles last year, but because they finished second to Wexford in 1B, they remain in the second tier this term.

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So, while the All-Ireland and league champions operate in the less-pressurised environs of 1B, the beaten All-Ireland finalists are engaged in an intense series of games against five other top teams.

And while being relegated wouldn't necessarily have any long-term negative impact, it's not the backdrop that Waterford want as they prepare for the new-look Munster championship.

"We're following a process and it involves league and championship. You're trying to strike a balance between confidence-sapping defeats and ensuring you follow the process," said McGrath after the defeat by Kilkenny in Walsh Park.

Meanwhile, in Pearse Stadium, Galway had won their third successive 1B game, beating Offaly by 11 points.

Despite the untroubled nature of their victory, Galway manager, Micheál Donoghue insisted it could not be taken for granted.

"These type of games are not simple. We had two hard weeks of training and we were conscious that there might have been a bit of tiredness, but the attitude was a big step up today," said Donoghue.

McGrath might care to disagree, or at least point out that 1B action is a whole lot simpler than facing Wexford, Tipperary and Kilkenny in successive games.

The 'big step up' Donoghue referred to was following games against Antrim and Laois, both of which tested Galway.

It's safe to assume that if Galway and Waterford swapped divisions and gave the same level of performances in their first three games, Donoghue would now be talking of the battle against relegation while McGrath looked forward to a promotion showdown with Limerick. Of course, Galway would have approached the league very differently if they were in 1A.

Instead, Donoghue could experiment in a group where the promotion prize was always likely to be settled by the Galway-Limerick clash in the last round.

Even the sequence of games suited Galway, lining them up against Antrim, Laois, Offaly, Dublin and Limerick in that order.

It enabled Donoghue to deploy his squad in less-pressurised circumstances than McGrath is encountering in 1A. Galway have used 30 players in three games, providing Donoghue with valuable information without running any real risks.

It's a luxury McGrath would love to have but experimenting is much more difficult in 1A.

Galway can even afford to lose to Dublin tomorrow without killing their promotion chances since head-to-head decides placings.

So even if Galway were two points behind Limerick going into the final round, a win would earn them promotion.

Truly, nothing illustrates the ridiculous nature of the league format more than the comparison between last year's All-Ireland finalists.

The winners are tipping along nicely in a largely low-pressure environment while the losers, still feeling raw after September, face top-line opposition all the time.

Yet, when the group games are over, the variation in standards between 1A and 1B becomes irrelevant.

It's illogical and unfair, yet when the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) proposed scrapping the quarter-finals last autumn, it was shot down by Central Council.

The CCCC wanted the top three in 1A and the 1B winners to qualify for the semi-finals, not least to ease fixture congestion, but Central Council rejected their argument and insisted on allowing four 1B teams into the quarter-finals.

One win from five games and a scoring difference of -39 points was enough to earn Offaly a place in the quarter-finals last year as fourth-placed finishers in 1B, after which they lost by 15 points to Tipperary.

Meanwhile, Clare won two games in 1A but had to win a relegation play-off with Dublin to survive in the group.

The league system is ludicrous, with the current contrast between last year's All-Ireland finalists Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Despite that, it will remain in place for the foreseeable future. How can it be allowed to happen?

Irish Independent

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