Thursday 17 October 2019

Time to be radical or redundant

Heavy rain last Sunday has caused the hurling league final to be put back, underlining the folly of packing so much action into January-March

A view of the pitch prior to the postponement of the Division 1B Round 5 match between Waterford and Galway at Walsh Park last weekend. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
A view of the pitch prior to the postponement of the Division 1B Round 5 match between Waterford and Galway at Walsh Park last weekend. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Here's what Páraic Fanning said: 'A serious review of the whole calendar is needed and joined-up thinking with people talking to each other to see what's best. The calendar is too tight."

Waterford's new hurling manager was speaking after the Waterford v Galway Allianz HL game had been called off last Sunday due to an unplayable pitch.

At least Fanning and his squad could head home quickly, whereas Galway faced a long journey back west.

For the second time in a year, they were facing a second trip to the south-east in a week, having suffered similar frustration last March when their league quarter-final with Wexford had to be rescheduled due to snow.

Cork v Tipperary and Wexford v Kilkenny were also postponed last Sunday, disruptions which inevitably led to the rest of the hurling league programme, including the Division 1 final, being put back by a week.

It means that the hurling and football finals will be played on the same weekend (March 30/31), which will damage both from a promotional viewpoint.

That's assuming, of course, that more games aren't lost over the next few weekends, in which case the finals will be put back to April, as happened last year in hurling.

"A second week's break is needed," said Fanning.

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He was referring to the scheduling of the hurling league, where an eight-round (including the Division 1 final) format was slotted in over nine weekends between January 26/27 and March 24.

February 9/10 was left free, which meant that no games could be postponed over the six weekends following that if March 24 were to remain as the date of the final.

Apart from January-March being unsuitable for hurling, let alone so much of it, expecting no cancellations due to bad weather takes optimism to ludicrous levels.

"We've to really look at it - you need a bit of leeway. You need to be able to tweak things a little bit," said Fanning.

Since this is his debut season as Waterford manager, it was the first time he had experienced cancellation frustrations, but it certainly won't be the last.

His call for "a serious review of the whole calendar" was the latest in a series of similar reactions that emerge whenever the weather makes a mischievous intervention.

Fanning is right about the calendar and so too is everybody else who complains about it. So why no change? Can the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) not do a better job in streamlining the fixtures' grid?

Actually, they can't because their hands are tied so tightly by strictures and structures that they do well to wriggle free and compile any kind of grid.

Instruction 1: Don't start the leagues until the New Year but complete them by the end of March so that April is left completely free of inter-county activity.

Instruction 2: Don't start the provincial championships until the second weekend in May.

Instruction 3: Complete the All-Ireland hurling championship by the third Sunday in August and football by the first Sunday in September.

So who's responsible for a fixtures spread (see table) that squeezes almost two-thirds of the inter-county programme into the first three months of the year?

And who thinks it's a good idea to have 94pc of inter-county games played by June 30? What logic is used to justify playing the Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups at the same time as the leagues are at their busiest?

It would be easy to think that the GAA's fixtures programme is designed by dark forces who want to wreck the organisation.

What else could explain the madness of trying to complete the hurling league, except for the final, before St Patrick's Day?

It's not that long since the league final was played on the second Sunday in May, which of course is now the starting date for the provincial championships.

And since there's a new policy of leaving April free of inter-county games, CCCC have no option but to shoehorn the league into the late January/late March period.

It's not hurling weather, but never mind, a box gets ticked. Except, of course, when nature intervenes and games are lost.

So what have those who call for 'tweaks' to the calendar got in mind?

Minor tinkering won't change the reality that it's unreasonable to attempt to squeeze an eight-round competition into nine weekends in a period when the weather is at its most unpredictable.

Realistically, there are three options: allow the league to run into April; trim down the number of games or start it in the autumn.

For reasons certainly not borne out by the evidence from last year, keeping April exclusively for club action only appears to have become an article of faith.

That's despite the fact that only 11 senior football and nine hurling county championships started in April last year.

Even then, most of them were suspended for several months afterwards. So what's the point of freeing April of inter-county action?

Reducing the number of games in the league would ease the pressure in January-March, but it would also damage the stature of competitions which, unlike the championships, are based on fairness and equality.

As for starting the league in the autumn, there's no official backing for it. That's despite carrying the obvious benefit of allowing for a later return to action in the New Year and leaving more weekends free in case of weather problems.

Only eight counties were left in the football championship by July 8 last year while only four remained in hurling by July 15. Most county championship are completed by mid-October (or at least they should be) so why not start the leagues at the end of the month?

Playing three or four rounds pre-Christmas would make an immense difference in the first three months of the year. Instead, the charade continues, with everyone agreeing that it's crazy to have so much activity in January-March.

Forgotten

And, as happened last Sunday when games were called off, calls for change emerge, only to be quickly forgotten when action resumes.

For a second successive year, the hurling league final has had to be put back and will face a further delay if even one game is called off over the next few weeks. The same applies in football.

As things stand nobody is happy with the fixtures schedule, either at club or county level. How could inter-county hurlers be content with a system which forces many of them to play most of their yearly allocation of games before St Patrick's Day.

And what of footballers who are guaranteed only two games after the second last Sunday in March?

Club players complain about being left idle for months in the summer before having a glut of action in a short space of time. So if everybody is frustrated, why isn't fixture-planning top of the agenda?

If the inter-county programme is so delicately balanced at this time of year that even one wet Sunday can destabilise it, then it's not fit for purpose.

It's time to be radical or redundant, which is why there's urgent need for the immediate establishment of a fixtures group with the power to slaughter as many sacred cows as required.

Irish Independent

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