BEFORE every big soccer tournament, there is always the one inevitable ‘Group of Death’, stacked with favourites and dark horses, where it’s almost a lottery trying to predict the two teams who will emerge from the group of four.
In Third Level Colleges terms, this year’s Group A of the Fitzgibbon Cup was the ultimate ‘Group of Death’ because it was loaded with four of the top eight sides in the 14-team competition - UCC, UL, UCD and NUI Galway. It looked even more imbalanced when compared with Groups C and D, which had just three teams.
With the group stages being played off in a 10/11 day blitz, UL – champions in 2018 – were gone after just four days, losing to UCC in their opening match before going down to NUIG in Dangan last Thursday.
UCC have already qualified while NUIG look best placed to join them. The sides meet in the Mardyke on Thursday evening but UCD, who play UL in Belfield at the same time, can still qualify if they win, and UCC beat NUIG by a significant margin.
Whatever happens, the blitz will soon pick up pace again, with the quarter-finals taking place next Thursday and the semi-finals scheduled for five days later. And in the meantime, some of those players may have played a couple of National League matches.
The long-running traditional Fitzgibbon ‘weekend’ where the semi-finals and final were staged within 24 hours has been abandoned now. That alteration was made last year with the GAA’s revamped calendar, where the 2018 semi-finals took place at a neutral venue and the final was staged in Mallow. This year’s final is being staged at the WIT campus at the end of February.
Removing the weekend (semi-finals and final) from the competition was expected to reduce the wear-and-tear on players, especially with many of those games going to extra-time. Yet that Fitzgibbon fiesta was always played on a free National hurling league weekend, whereas now it isn’t. Less than 24 hours after lining out in last year’s Fitzgibbon final, Conor Cleary, Paudie Foley and Aaron Maddock played in the Clare-Wexford league game in Wexford Park.
The demands on players to feature for both college and county is likely to be less extreme this spring with no promotion or relegation in the league. But that reality still hasn’t lessened the demands on those players from inter-county managers, many of whom don’t want to entertain the Fitzgibbon or Sigerson Cups.
A couple of weeks back, Professor Niall Moyna, who managed DCU to four Sigerson Cups, spoke about this issue on RTÉ Radio 1.
Head of the School of Health and Human Performance in DCU, Moyna is better versed in sports science and player welfare than most but he came from the opposite side of the debate. Moyna said that one of the primary reasons that drove him to quit the DCU Sigerson team after 17 years of involvement was frustration at county managers denying him access to his players.
“In the last two years, we see players now saying, ‘Look, I’m not interested in playing Sigerson, I can only play inter-county senior’,” said Moyna. “For me, the joy was gone from it at that stage.”
Moyna isn’t the only one to feel that frustration. “The fun is definitely gone out of it,” says one current coach with one of the top Fitzgibbon teams.
“We have hardly any access to our main players. It’s almost impossible to train but one of the most frustrating aspect for management is the impact this is having on the spirit, both of the competition, and within the squad. We have some guys who never miss training and then they watch inter-county players come back and walk straight onto the team, even though some of them might not have even trained with us once.”
There is no give on this debate because county managers are just as exasperated with the timing of the competitions, and the impact it’s having on player welfare.
“I think it’s crazy what they’ve done,” said Padraic Fanning, Waterford manager, recently.
“Last week and the week before, I can’t understand why there were no Fitzgibbon games played. I don’t understand how they came up with the fixtures schedule. Anybody who talks about burnout is talking out both sides of their mouth on it because you can’t justify it.
“It’s not fair on the players, it’s not fair on the colleges, and it’s not fair on county teams getting ready for the National League. I think every county manager is trying to do what’s best for the players and they shouldn’t be in that position.”
The GAA’s hands are tied due to the pressure to condense the playing calendar and to both start and finish the leagues earlier. Yet timing is an issue now with almost every GAA competition given how packed the schedule is. Fanning’s point about playing some of those Fitzgibbon games earlier in January to avoid the current pile up is well made but the pre-season competitions complicate that schedule.
The general call from commentators is to play the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson before Christmas but with most colleges having exams at the end of a semester, along with ongoing action from the provincial club championships, at Senior, Intermediate and Junior, that window has been closed off.
The windows are just getting tighter and tighter. So is the pressure and stress because a lot of young players, many of whom are on scholarships, are being forced into difficult positions.
The Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups have always been brilliant competitions but much of the fun is definitely being squeezed out of them. And if the current situation continues, they look to be headed in the same direction as the Railway Cups.