IN the Cork Hurling Championships this weekend, where every team has something to play for, the highly competitive nature of the four-team group format recently prompted Mark Landers to describe the quality to date as “remarkable”.
It has been an excellent championship, but the competitiveness has been reflected throughout the country, primarily because clubs have had all their players available, which has facilitated a sustained period of focused and quality preparation.
All of this has come about more by accident than design, but it’s provided the perfect selling point for the benefits of a split-season.
Playing hurling and football championship games in fine weather on good pitches has been an obvious boon for club players, but the club window has also shown how much time was being spent unnecessarily by everyone over the years.
Everybody knew the format; start training in January — maybe even December — and go hell-for-leather until April, before the whole thing was effectively shut down until August or September; then tip away with league or challenge games over the summer before taking some time off, and then beginning a second pre-season in mid-to-late summer; and then go hell-for-leather again.
Club players may not have had their foot pressed to the pedal for 10-11 months, but their season still lasted that long. And it is simply placing too much demands on club players’ lives.
The beauty of a split season is that club players would no longer be slaves to the inter-county calendar. On the other hand, does the old format suit many players, especially younger players?
In theory, it effectively does, because it allows them to plan their season, particularly their summer.
The usual pattern makes it easy for many young players to sketch out an outline map at the outset of the year; train hard in winter-spring; play in April; travel abroad for work or pleasure over the summer; return in August; and then go hell-for-leather again.
For those who head to the US to play hurling or football, an earlier departure, particularly after college exams, allows players to return within the allocated timeframe after receiving a temporary transfer to North America.
There is no doubting that allure. One of the biggest indictments of the current inter-county format — especially before the calendar was condensed — was the number of players (especially in the football championship) who travelled to the US after losing their first championship game.
That trend alone underlined the craziness of the system, and how the league was always deemed more important than the championship for so many of those players.
Why else would they train like demons for the first six months of the season, play in the muck and dirt, and then head abroad in high summer when the experience should have been most enjoyable and challenging?
One the reasons the club championships have been such a success this summer is because everyone is around.
Nobody is abroad. No-one has gone on a J1 Visa to the US. Young players have not gone backpacking around Asia or inter-railing across Europe.
It has been the first time in living memory that most clubs have been consistently able to play 15-on-15 training games — with subs waiting anxiously on the sideline to get a run — in July and August.
The restrictions may have denied people the chance to see their teams in competitive action, but there is no doubting the impact the restrictions have had on the collective spirit within club panels.
The old system was often a breeding ground for resentment; some players who trained throughout the summer, when the numbers were often in single digits, would invariably be jettisoned from the starting team once the crew flew back in from their travels.
A player from the second team, who lined out for the first team in a championship game, was soon probably back on the bench again after certain players returned late from their travels.
But because that player was now ineligible to play championship for the junior or intermediate team, his or her season was ruined.
Nobody knows what the future will hold, especially in terms of travel.
Will as many young players be as keen to go jet-setting over the summer? Will the same number of summer jobs abroad be available?
Will the US make J1 Visas as freely available as they did in the past?
Whatever happens, young players — or players whose jobs allow them to travel abroad over the summer — will have major decisions to make if a split season is introduced.
If All-Ireland finals are fixed for July, the clubs in the counties competing in those finals will be ramping up their preparations in June for an early August start. Yet all of those clubs whose county team exited the championship much earlier will view that free time in June and July as an ideal opportunity to get more preparation done.
Even though the county players may not return until June or July, club teams will need to be getting up to speed much quicker than normal if they want to hit the ground running in late July.
So where will that leave the player who had planned to travel to the US for three months after the exams finished in May, to earn money for a return to college in September?
Nobody knows what will happen in the short term, but the earliest possible implementation of a split season appears likely to be 2022.
Yet if it is introduced, everyone will have some hard thinking to do about their summers.
Especially a lot of club players.