WHEN Kerry met Meath in last year’s Division 2A hurling league in Killarney, a photo taken by INPHO’s James Crombie — of Kerry’s Daniel Collins trying to solo away from Meath’s Shane Whitty — would have been a perfect picture for one of those ‘Spot the ball’ competitions
Usually, the ball is deleted out of the photo and the entrants try and guess where it would have been in that moment. Yet Crombie’s picture wouldn’t have required any editing — because the white ball was nowhere to be seen in the middle of a heavy snowstorm.
Throughout that afternoon, all over the country, rain turned to sleet and then to snow, as the nationwide yellow weather warning was borne out. In Wexford, the Kilkenny bus arrived at the ground 10 minutes before the referee called off the match — the surface water was ankle deep in parts of the pitch.
On the same afternoon, Cork and Tipperary, and Galway-Waterford, were also called off less than an hour before throw-in. A number of other games also failed to get the green light.
That was in early March last year, but it wasn’t surprising; on the exact same weekend in 2018, 33 games were wiped out by heavy snowfall when a full programme of matches were scheduled to be played in both codes.
After Storm Dennis forced the cancellation of five league hurling games last weekend — the second weekend in a row where the GAA’s fixture schedule was disturbed by bad weather — the hurling league final will now be moved back for the third successive year.
League fixtures so early in the season, especially in hurling, will always be at the mercy of the weather. But the more condensed league programme in both football and hurling means that there is far less scope for movement anymore.
With only one free weekend in the hurling league programme, and that break having already occurred, the upcoming schedule was expected to continue over the next five weekends, with Rounds 4 and 5 immediately followed by league quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final penciled in for March 22.
The postponed games from the last two weekends (the rescheduled football games were at least all played last weekend) don’t pose any immediate threat to the GAA’s plans to conclude the Leagues by the end of March. But there are no guarantees that will happen either, and that the concluding stages of the league, in both codes, will bleed into April, thus eating into the club window.
That has happened in the last couple of years; the 2018 hurling league final between Kilkenny and Tipperary was played in April, as was last year’s Division 3 football league final between Laois and Westmeath.
Last year’s Division 4 league final would also have gone back to April only that a number of fixtures which had no impact on promotion were essentially scratched off the calendar.
That decision caused huge anger from several Division 4 managers and players. Apart from the lack of consultation from the GAA, the decision also deprived some counties of playing their full schedule of matches, which they felt inadvertently disrupted their championship preparations.
Despite mid-week games being a feature of the GAA at almost every level, it’s not at senior inter-county level. That will always compress the calendar even tighter but there is greater focus on this issue from a hurling perspective with the GAA’s decision to retain the league quarter-finals.
The GAA can’t do anything about the weather but retaining the league quarter-finals leaves far less room for manoeuvre in such a narrow timeframe.
The worth of league quarter-finals has been a hot topic anyway in recent years, especially when some teams have clearly not been too bothered with them. Adding another layer of matches in the spring is even more debatable with the new round-robin provincial system in May and June.
The league quarter-finals were originally introduced as largely a financial measure to provide additional gate revenue for hurling counties by giving them extra matches. That was even more relevant when the groupings were reduced to six in 2012, which meant some counties had just two home matches during the league.
Yet there were still always holes to be picked somewhere in the league quarter-finals format, especially in how they were decided; the fifth and sixth ranked teams (in Division 1A) were excluded, while the 9th and 10th (third and fourth in Division 1B) were included. Yet that design was as much for developmental purposes than anything else, particularly when some of those lower-ranked counties would have previously had no access to playing the top teams in the country during the league.
When Laois finished fourth in Division 1B last year, it was primarily off the back of Offaly’s surprise last round win over Carlow, which plunged Carlow into a relegation final and ensured Laois’s place in the quarter-finals.
Laois were subsequently well beaten by Limerick in Portlaoise but there were so many clear positives to their performance that evening that it may have been the starting point of Laois’s successful summer — winning the Joe McDonagh Cup and running Tipp close in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
The wider value of retaining the league quarter-finals though, will always be contentious. For the third year running, some inter-county county hurling teams look set for a hectic March before the planned club month in April kicks in.
Yet some teams could still end up playing in April. That’s a nightmare scenario for the GAA but, with deteriorating spring weather becoming more common, another storm could yet blow another weekend off the calendar.