Martin Breheny: Eligibility rows bring colleges competitions into disrepute
It was midday yesterday when IT Carlow and Limerick IT discovered that they had two hours to get ready for a major championship game.
That's right - two hours.
Waterford IT and DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) were 'luckier'. Their clash was scheduled for an evening throw-in so they had seven hours to get ready. Not exactly ideal but still better than two hours.
Welcome to the chaos which has descended on this year's Independent.ie Fitzgibbon Cup, following a dispute over player eligibility.
Specifically, it concerned Kilkenny's James Gannon, whose presence on the Carlow IT team led to an objection from Mary Immaculate (Limerick).
The GAA's Higher Education authorities backed Mary I's stance and ordered that they replace Carlow IT in the quarter-finals.
Carlow IT countered by taking the case to the GAA's Central Appeals Committee, which found in their favour. Mary I were out again, but took their case to the Disputes Resolution Authority - seeking 'interim relief', pending a full hearing.
The DRA didn't grant it, thereby clearing the way for Carlow IT to take their place against Limerick IT yesterday. Through no fault of the DRA, their decision didn't emerge until around noon yesterday, after which Carlow IT and Limerick IT headed for Moylish and the 2pm start.
Limerick IT, who will host the finals this weekend, Waterford IT and DIT are all innocent parties in this mess, but found themselves dragged into a dispute which left them uncertain as to whether their quarter-finals would be played until hours before the scheduled starts. If the two games had not gone ahead, it would have almost certainly led to the postponement of the finals next weekend.
Meanwhile, Cork IT and University of Limerick are through to Friday's semi-finals.
The finals will take place on Saturday, which means that one or both of yesterday's quarter-final winners could face three games 96 hours. At a time when player burnout remains a major concern for the GAA, it's beyond comprehension that players could face three games (with extra-time if required) between Tuesday and Saturday.
That apart, there's the reputational damage suffered by the Fitzgibbon Cup, arising from events of the last week. The Sigerson Cup football championship had its controversies too, including the expulsion, followed by the re-admission, of IT Sligo and Queen's University.
As with Carlow IT, the college GAA authorities expelled them, only for the Central Appeals Committee to overturn the decision.
Now here's the thing - if players were ruled as ineligible by one group, how are they deemed eligible by another authority? Are the regulations so open to various interpretations as to be useless?
"Bringing the Association into disrepute" has long been a catch-all sanction in the GAA for embarrassing situations not associated with playing offences.
The Fitzgibbon Cup fiasco isn't so much a disrepute as a disgrace scenario, reflecting very badly on the manner in which game is administered at third level.
How difficult can it be to draw up watertight regulations for player eligibility? Granted, there are so many strands to third-level college life nowadays that every angle requires consideration but, once that's done, all loopholes should be closed off.
Yet, in the space of a few weeks, two college football and one hurling team were ejected and re-admitted.
It looks terribly sloppy and takes away much of the gloss from competitions which have long been such an integral part of the GAA calendar.
Third-level colleges get mighty peeved when their presence in pre-season inter-county competitions is questioned, pointing out that it's an important part of the build-up to the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cup events.
It may well be but is it fair on counties who are trying to fast-track their preparations for the leagues?
That has nothing directly to do with the latest mess but counties would be well entitled to tell the GAA college authorities to sort out their own affairs before asking provincial councils to facilitate them. The GAA's Central Council must be livid over the Sigerson and, more especially, the Fitzgibbon Cup embarrassments.
Congress will debate measures next weekend designed to reduce pressure on young players, yet third level has now created a scenario where teams may face three games four days.
There would have been an outcry if the original schedule called for that, but the fact that it's down to rows over eligibility does not alter the reality that it's a very unfair imposition on players.
It's time for Croke Park to call in those who administer the game at third level and issue a clear instruction that this sort of mess must never be allowed to happen again. Too much damage has already been done.