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The men facing two games in 47 weeks

SHANE Dooley would have noticed the much extended brightness as he and his Offaly colleagues travelled home from Casement Park last Sunday.

Once again, he had been Offaly's top scorer, contributing 0-10 to their two-point win over Antrim. Just as Dooley was reflecting on the end of a mid-table league season, another son of a famous hurling dynasty was similarly occupied as the Wexford team left the Gaelic Grounds.

Rory Jacob scored 0-3 in the draw with Limerick at the end of a campaign where Wexford were also stranded in no-man's land in Division 1B, finishing outside the promotion pace but free of a relegation play-off which they had to negotiate last year.

Waterford lost to Galway in Walsh Park so Michael 'Brick' Walsh, arguably the best centre-back in hurling, was spared a long journey home after a fourth-place finish in 1A, the only position in the group that carried no further involvement.

As Dooley, Jacob and Walsh closed their front doors behind them on the day that summer-time officially began (although nobody seems to have told stubborn winter), the GAA's national fixtures list decreed that between March 31 and February 23 next, it could guarantee them only two inter-county games.

Two games in 47 weeks! They played five games in five weeks in late February-March (mostly in bitterly cold weather) but now face the possibility of having only two games in just under 11 months.

This is no alarmist theory. All that remains for the counties who were eliminated from the league last Sunday is the championship and as Offaly can attest from 2009 and Wexford from 2010, it can be all over in two games.

Indeed, there's every chance that one, or even both of them, will only have two championship outings, since their opening Leinster engagements pit Wexford against Dublin and Offaly against Kilkenny on the weekend of June 8/9. The odds suggest that by June 10, Wexford and Offaly will be looking to the qualifiers, which can be pretty hostile territory, even early on.

Waterford play Clare on June 2 in what is a demanding opening too. And, while Waterford would probably fare better than Wexford or Offaly in the qualifiers, that's not the issue.

No, the big case here is the crazy structure which offers top players so few guarantees of getting fairly regular action during the April-August period.

I've personalised the examples of Dooley, Jacob and Walsh to reinforce the point but it applies to all their colleagues too. And while Offaly, Wexford and Waterford may end up with only seven competitive fixtures all year, some others could have eight, scarcely a huge improvement.

By next Sunday, many footballers will be on the two-game guarantee ration too for the rest of the year but at least they will have had seven league outings, as opposed to five for some hurlers.

Financing inter-county preparation is a costly business but obviously the more often the team plays, the greater the value for money. Clearly then a two-game summer campaign is staggeringly expensive without doing much to advance a team.

Whenever the issue of inter-county programmes is raised, the usual response is: "Think of the clubs, they are being squeezed ever more tightly for space on the calendar."

Clubs have a case but their problem is not too much inter-county action but too much badly-planned inter-county action, combined with weak local administrations who won't stand up to powerful team managers.

Thus, club championships are often closed down while the county team remains in the All-Ireland race, even when there are long gaps between games.

The call for more time to be allocated to clubs reached Congress from a new angle this year where over a quarter of the delegates supported a Cork proposal to have the All-Ireland senior finals completed by the second Sunday in September. The vote in favour would probably have been higher except for the intervention of director-general Paraic Duffy, who warned of the promotional loss accruing from finals played earlier in the calendar.

Of course, club v county is a difficult balance. However, the correct solution can't rest in telling the hurlers from Waterford, Offaly and Wexford that they may have only two games between now and late February next.

At least Waterford have a good chance of extending their summer season but Offaly and Wexford could be early casualties. How can they make progress when all but two of their games are squeezed into five weeks in February-March?

The GAA likes to claim that hurling is the greatest field game in the world, yet it offers players from Waterford, Offaly and Wexford two guaranteed games in 47 weeks. Go figure.

Irish Independent