The Christy O'Connor column: New format will put a squeeze on hurlers and supporters

The Christy O'Connor column: New format will put a squeeze on hurlers and supporters
Cork's Conor Lehane and Clare's Aaron Cunningham and Cathal Malone during the Munster Senior Hurling League last January. Picture: Brian Gavin/Press 22

A MONTH ago, Jamie Wall posted a tweet venting his anger at a newspaper article detailing a December 30 throw-in for the McGrath Cup and Munster senior hurling league.

“So the GAA move the goalposts (U21 football to U20 football) for ‘player welfare’,” wrote Wall. 

“Then expect college level players to play this farce, fitz (Fitzgibbon Cup) and league.” 

It was easy to understand Wall’s frustration. 

Having managed Mary I to the 2017 Fitzgibbon Cup, Wall fully appreciates the difficulties of trying to prepare properly for the third level competition with so many other demands on players at that time of the season.

In 2018 though, those demands are going to be even more hectic at the business end of the Fitzgibbon season, January and February.

For a start, the league begins at the end of January, while there are three rounds in four weeks before the Fitzgibbon Cup final takes place on February 24. 

Playing another round of league games the following day further complicates the scheduling, especially with so many inter-county players likely to be involved in the final. 

With the football league also starting at the end of January, Sigerson Cup teams and players will face an equally demanding schedule.

Initially, it was almost automatically assumed that the provincial leagues would be scrapped with the new start times of the Leagues, and the condensed window in which they could be run off. 

However, the Munster Council consulted with various counties and felt that there was sufficient interest, in both the McGrath Cup and Munster Senior League, to continue with the competitions.

Of course, not everyone was interested and a host of teams have pulled out. 

For some, playing those competitions is too much when February and March is going to be like a race, in the mud. 

Most sensible inter-county managers now understand the importance of the Fitzgibbon Cup, and release their players accordingly, but not all are as liberal with their players. 

That attitude is bound to harden even more from now on with a more condensed pre-season, and an even crazier regular league schedule. 

The recent decision taken by Central Council to include league quarter-finals on March 11 has now made the spring hurling calendar even more hectic. 

The teams who reach the final on March 24 will play eight games in nine weeks.

The new system deserves a chance before being properly judged but one of the biggest fears of the new scheduling is that the hurling league will become more of a developmental crucible, which could see the competition lose much of its relevance.

The GAA have tried to allay some of those fears with a trip to Australia in 12 months time for the 2018 Division 1 champions, with the winners taking on All-Ireland champions Galway in an exhibition game in Sydney. 

Yet managers, some of whom may out of a job by that stage, won’t be unduly concerned by that distant carrot on the eve of the championship.

For a game designed for hard ground and summer months, everything has been squeezed now into those first six months, with most of July left free for the football Super 8s.

Playing the Munster and Leinster finals on the same day in early July is a disgraceful decision, and one which shows complete disregard for genuine hurling people.

The GAA’s reasoning for doing so is nothing short of pathetic; the double scheduling was to avoid a ‘six-day turnaround’ in the football championship; given the large number of high profile hurling games that will be staged in the provinces in 2018, the GAA didn’t see the same issues arising as might have in previous years had such a proposal of staging both games on the same day been floated.

That attitude smacks of even more contempt for hurling supporters; there may be more hurling games on than before in May and June but the majority are on the same days. 

In effect, genuine hurling supporters will see fewer games live than they would have under the old system.

Have the GAA really thought all of this through? 

If teams are level on points in the groups, progress will be decided on ‘Head-to-Head’ followed by score difference. 

If three teams are level, it is decided by score difference, which seems a ridiculous way for a team to depart the hurling championship so early in the season.

The new system will be exciting but it’s easy to see why Wall and so many hurling people are on edge with what is potentially coming. 

Fitzgibbon Cup squads are also expected to be under far more pressure from now on because inter-county panels are likely to be far bigger in the early part of the season as managers train their eye towards the Round-Robin provincial campaigns in May-June. 

With teams having to play four massive championship games in five weeks, injuries are going to be a decisive factor, which will require stronger panels than ever before. 

And many of those new players will be given their opportunity during the league.

The GAA’s guiding principle in developing the 2018 Master Fixtures plan was to ensure that as much of April as possible could be kept free for club games. 

That decision making is still down to county boards but what does someone like Shane Kingston do next April?

Douglas' Shane Kingston hammers home a goal against Cill Na Martra in the U21 final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Douglas' Shane Kingston hammers home a goal against Cill Na Martra in the U21 final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

After having played Fitzgibbon Cup and league games in February and March, Kingston will be expected to play senior hurling and football matches (and possibly U21 games) with Douglas, while also being expected to train – in some form - with the senior hurlers ahead of their most important period of the season. 

Kingston will also have the important matter of exams during that month.

The new system is largely designed for clubs but much of this new scheduling still smacks of making it up as they go along. 

Especially for hurling.

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