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Spring competitions require adjustment to deal with reality of bad weather

Colm Keys



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A hail shower hits Cusack Park before yesterday’s game in Ennis. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A hail shower hits Cusack Park before yesterday’s game in Ennis. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

A hail shower hits Cusack Park before yesterday’s game in Ennis. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A few weeks ago, a letter-writer to the Sunday Independent outlined a vision for sorting out the GAA's gnarled fixtures calendar which was, at the time, a topic of discussion with the release of the Fixtures Task Force report.

The letter-writer proposed something a little different to alleviate the congestion. Instead of trying to fit everything into a calendar year or any 12-month period, they suggested the idea of 16-month seasons. In other words, three competitions in four years instead of four in four years.

You might consider it a square peg in a round hole solution, more than a little unconventional. But in terms of providing the necessary space for all competitions to exist and breathe as they are, to allow the better players with multi-eligibility to be able to commit to more of those teams more of the time, it wasn't far off being the timeframe required.

Of course, it wasn't the solution but it did underline the extent of the problem the GAA continues to grapple with as it seeks to cordon off exclusive space from the club game to have inter-county players in the middle of the inter-county season.

To protect that April club month, some big sacrifices have had to be made, the third-level competitions being arguably the biggest casualty, with the compression of the Sigerson Cup this season to a mere abbreviation.

The league balances on a high wire too. With yesterday's postponement of the Galway/Tipperary game in Pearse Stadium and the double postponement of Limerick/Waterford in the Gaelic Grounds, it means the hurling league final will miss its intended target for the third successive year.

In 2018, it wasn't completed until April 8 when Kilkenny beat Tipperary, two weeks after schedule, last year it shared the same stage as the league football final in Croke Park on the last Sunday in March, a week off schedule.

Missing the 2018 target was more impactful than last year but now, with a third successive date missed, it begs the question as to why the hurling league final isn't fixed for the last Sunday in March anyway, on the same weekend as the four football finals.

Three league finals on a Saturday evening in Croke Park, followed by the two Division One deciders on Sunday, would not be out of order, as last year proved, albeit with just two league finals on the Saturday evening at GAA headquarters.

Adverse weather through February has become a fact of Irish life. Last weekend, much of the football programme was lucky to survive. But for Kerry travelling north the night before, their game with Tyrone - played in Edendork after Healy Park in Omagh was ruled out - wouldn't have gone ahead.

At least football has one more 'free' weekend, March 7/8, to tidy up any further damage there may be because of weather over the next two weekends of activity.

Hurling has no such release valve because of the constraints of a schedule that continues to incorporate quarter-finals, stripped back to two from four this year as the table-toppers from each Division One group go straight to semi-finals. Putting the top two teams straight into semi-finals, irrespective of potential last round 'dead rubbers,' would solve a lot of problems.

On the football front, the loss of many U-20 matches caused a degree of schadenfreude from those vehemently opposed to its switch back to a spring billing and the impact it has on this year's concluding stages of the second-level competitions. Next year, those second-level competitions will have to be completed by the end of January, if a motion to Congress from the Rules Task Force is successful. It's another significant sacrifice.

The battle for allegiance of talented players to senior and U-20 teams has already been evident in counties where resources are not as plentiful.

The congestion all round, allied to the continuous weather issues, will add further credence to the suggestion that the old order should change in some significant way. The Fixtures Task Force proposal to shift the league to the summer, provided a more balanced way of making the play-offs can be found, and the provincial competitions coming back to spring, will gain traction.

Set out as a possible calendar, five provincial league games would take place over seven weekends (with two weekend breaks inserted) before a further weekend break prefaces the semi-finals and final, wrapped up on week 13 (March 27/28). That's seven rounds over 10 weeks for eight counties (six in nine weeks for 16), which offers greater breathing space than the eight rounds in 10 weeks currently in place.

The spring leagues need to breathe more, whether they are provincial or national-based in hurling or football.

And it's clear now that the competitions must be cut in order to allow that to happen.

Irish Independent