The provincial championships – are they over before they start?
Early summer of stifling predictability on cards as elite handful of counties odds-on to extend local dominance
IS it really necessary to play out the remainder of the provincial football and hurling championships?
If the markets are to be believed – and they get it right far more often than wrong – then the four provincial football championships, plus their equivalents in Leinster and Munster hurling, are all so tightly secured that nothing can prise them away from the favourites. It's scarcely the ideal scenario for the GAA from a promotional, marketing or financial viewpoint.
It's probably unprecedented in GAA history that all of the provincial championships have odds-on favourites at this stage of the campaign. Seven of the football semi-finalists have still to be decided, yet with 29 (19 football, 10 hurling) games remaining at provincial level, the public have decided that the destination of the ultimate prizes are foregone conclusions.
If you were to bet an accumulator on the four football favourites, €1 would yield a meagre €4.20. This, despite the fact that Mayo, Dublin, Donegal and Kerry have to win a total of nine games between them to land the titles.
Of course, odds don't decide games but they do offer an accurate reflection of how the public view events, since prices are reflected on the amounts wagered.
Mayo are 1/5, followed by Roscommon at a distant 9/2. And while either Leitrim or London will be in the final, they are available at 12/1 and 18/1 respectively. Clearly, punters believe that Mayo captain David Clarke can already begin preparing his acceptance speech for Connacht final day.
The apparent certainty of it all doesn't augur well for Connacht Council's finances this year, especially if London reach the final. Not that finance should be the over-riding issue.
Indeed, if London did reach the final, it would a massive boost to all the people there – and indeed in cities and towns all over the world – who promote Gaelic Games. From that perspective, London playing in the final would be one of the big stories of the year.
Donegal need to win two more games and are priced at 4/11 to do so. It's a long way from the days when three or four teams were vying for favouritism in Ulster.
Monaghan are second favourites at 7/1, mainly because they are on the opposite side of the draw to Donegal.
Derry (8/1) and Down (10/1), who meet tomorrow for the right to play Donegal, are obviously regarded as being well off the pace set by Jim McGuinness' high-fliers.
How things have changed for Donegal. Who would have thought three years ago when they lost a qualifier clash with Armagh by nine points that they would now be 4/11 to complete an Ulster treble after winning nine successive games in the province?
Dublin are as short as 8/15, despite needing to win three games to retain the title. It's a reflection of their status as Division 1 champions, backed up by a dominance in Leinster which has seen them win seven of the last eight titles.
Kildare (7/2) are classed as the only real opposition, with Meath (15/2), Louth (14/1), Wexford (20/1), Westmeath (25/1), Wicklow (66/1) and Offaly (90/1) strung out in the distance.
More odds-on favourites as Kerry (4/6) are ahead of Cork (11/10), with Clare (90/1) and Waterford (200/1) given no chance. As things stand, Munster looks the most open of the four provinces, albeit in a two-horse race.
Galway (6/4) may be the reigning champions but Kilkenny are the 4/7 favourites. There are few takers for anything outside the top two.
Dublin are next on 20/1 but who would have thought 15 years ago that Offaly and Wexford would be available at 33/1 and 50/1 respectively? Granted, Galway weren't playing in Leinster back then but crucially, Kilkenny were an ordinary force. Their 1998 Leinster win was their first provincial title for five years, with Offaly and Wexford sharing the titles from 1994-97.
Few are backing against Tipperary (4/7) to win the title for the fifth time in six seasons. Cork (4/1), Clare and Limerick (13/2 each) and Waterford (22/1) are all perceived as battling for second place and, frankly, it's difficult to argue against that assessment.
Having such short-priced favourites to win all the provincial titles is worrying for the GAA. Nothing boosts crowds more than uncertainty and variation, two ingredients which – at this stage at least – appear to be missing this year.
Dublin, Mayo and Donegal are all pursuing provincial football trebles, and while Cork v Kerry is always unpredictable, the concern in Munster is that the other four counties are slipping ever further behind the 'Big Two'.
Certainly, the big defeats suffered by Limerick and Tipperary against Cork and Kerry respectively last weekend pointed to an enormous difference in standards.
On a broader scale, there are now growing concerns that the gap will widen even further, arising from the financial standing of various counties.
Basically, the top strata find it much easier to raise money for team preparation, thus increasing their advantage over the others.
Dessie Dolan, who this evening will face Dublin in Croke Park, believes that money is now the unseen 16th man used by wealthier counties.
"There are six teams who have just gone through the roof in terms of preparation. I've never seen a situation where teams are getting beaten the way they are now. There's definitely a big gap between Divisions 1 and 2. There are a couple of elite teams and the rest are just making up the numbers," he said.
Waterford manager Niall Carew also believes that it's a tale of the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' and is concerned that the difference will become more pronounced. He takes his squad to Killarney this evening to take on a Kerry team that beat Tipperary by 17 points last Sunday.
"I'd love to have been able to bring the Waterford lads to a training camp in Portugal as Kerry did two months ago. We went to Johnstown House for a few days earlier in the year, but the lads had to fundraise for it. I'm not complaining, and fully understand the heavy financial pressures on the Waterford County Board, but I bet you the Kerry players didn't to have raise money for their trip to Portugal," said Carew.
He worked with Kieran McGeeney in Kildare prior to slotting into the manager's chair in Waterford this year and is now experiencing just how difficult life is at the lower end of the scale.
"The bigger, more successful counties can generate plenty of money through a lot of sources. As a result, they can spend big on a county team to make everything possible available to them. A lot of other counties can't do that but have to compete with opposition who have it all.
"All the players and managements are doing their best but the playing field is far from level," he said.
Wins by London (Division 4) over Sligo (Division 3) and Cavan (Division 3) over Armagh (Division 2) will be put forward as examples of counties beating the odds over the last two weekends but the real test will come in clashes between Division 1 counties and lower-ranked opposition.
In that regard, this evening's double header in Croke Park will be particularly informative since it pairs Division 1 counties Dublin and Kildare against Westmeath (promoted from Division 2) and Offaly (promoted from Division 4) respectively.
Big defeats for the underdogs would drive a further wedge between the elite and the rest in a season which badly needs a superpower to be beaten.