AFTER John Divilly led UCD to a second Sigerson Cup under his watch in 2018, after a narrow victory against NUI Galway in a thrilling final, Divilly offered his perspective on the third-level championship.
Given the pressure on players alternating between county and college, Divilly believed that they should be allowed make a choice between the two, and that such a ring-fencing practise should be respected and upheld by GAA rules, “Trial it for a year or two like they’re doing with the championship and see if it works,” said Divilly.
“There’s no-one here forcing a young lad to play Sigerson. If he doesn’t want to play, he can get involved recreationally in the college and play with his club and county – there’s no problem.
“But the guys who really want to play it but don’t want the fear and the backlash of having to train or play with the county. ‘I have to play this O’Byrne Cup match on Sunday, but I really want to play Sigerson on Tuesday but don’t want the fear of losing my place with the county.’”
Divilly saw it cut both ways that season because a number of UCD players from the previous year decided not to get involved again in 2018.
Fixture clashes were inevitable, which was totally apparent during that 2018 Sigerson Cup final when two players, Kieran Molloy and Liam Silke, had to play an All-Ireland club semi-final with Corofin in Tullamore on the same afternoon. Afterwards, Molloy hopped into a Garda car and was escorted up to Santry Avenue in north Dublin, entering the fray in the 39th minute.
Silke suffered an injured finger after playing 60 minutes against Moorefield, but Divilly indicated afterwards that he wouldn’t have asked Silke to play a second game on the same day.
Both players had come on as second half subs for their respective colleges in the Sigerson semi-finals three nights earlier but the potential clash for both players was flagged from the moment that the Sigerson draw was made in December.
The same potential for conflict remained again this year, as the All-Ireland club championships clashed on the same weekend as the Sigerson semi-finals. UCD left Silke play with Corofin, while the NUIG-UCC match was pushed back by 24 hours, where players had to take the field twice on successive days.
Something had to give. It did but now the schedule has got a whole lot more condensed in January. When the decision was taken to play the All-Ireland club finals in January, the GAA said that the move is “part of an overall commitment to condense the fixture calendar, create opportunities for club activity and would also allow counties in the Allianz Leagues to access players who were previously unavailable because they were playing in All-Ireland senior club semi-finals and finals."
Players overwhelmingly prefer the idea of playing out the championship as soon as their provincial finals are over. There is still minimal wiggle room, so the 2020 hurling and football semi-finals will take place on the weekend of January 4/5, with the final coming two weeks later.
The weather could have a significant say in that scheduling but there is even more potential for chaos with the GAA deciding to squeeze the Sigerson Cup into an 18-day schedule in January.
The 2020 Sigerson Cup will now have its most condensed schedule in the third-level football competition’s history. Throwing in on the weekend of January 11/12, the Sigerson Cup will conclude two and a half weeks later on January 29.
The scheduling of the 16-team competition is further contextualised considering that it took 35 days to run off last year’s Sigerson - effectively double the time of the 2020 competition.
The third-level competition looks to be in crisis, and at breaking point, but it appears as if Croke Park has effectively ran out of patience with the third-level sector.
The Sigerson season was already restricted anyway but it still appeared to be too much of an intrusion into other activities. And particularly when so many of the competitions are contested by many of the same players.
The GAA believe that the new format will lessen the load of inter-county players in February and ensure their availability for all of the league.
Yet what about the players who don’t play inter-county football? Of the 76 players which featured in the 2019 Sigerson semi-finals (UCC-NUIG and St Mary’s-UCD), 52 of them had no involvement during the championship over the summer.
To put the numbers in a different context, only 32% of the players involved in the last four of the Sigerson played inter-county senior this season. And they were the elite teams in the competition.
Croke Park should be more concerned with the non-elite. In any case, it’s difficult to know how much more the third-level competitions can be stretched.
There has been moves to reform the third-level environment in recent years. Freshers can no longer play in the main competitions, while the traditional weekend format has been changed so that the final stages are more spread out.
Numerous commentators have still called for the competitions to be played before Christmas but most colleges having exams at the end of a semester. And then other colleges have exams during January.
The GAA’s thinking now appears to be to get the Sigerson out of the way as quickly as possible. So what’s the next step down the road? Whatever it is, running off a 110 year-old competition within the space of 18 days doesn’t look to have a long-term positive outcome.