GAA must protect special Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup competitions

Calling off Third Level games this season is a huge concern
GAA must protect special Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cup competitions

Robbie O'Flynn of UCC in action against Luke Scanlon of IT Carlow during the Fitzgibbon Cup final last season. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

WHEN former GAA President Liam O’Neill arrived in Limerick in March 2014 to present the Limerick minor hurlers with their 2013 Munster minor medals, then manager Brian Ryan saw an opening for some redress with O'Neill.

Limerick had lost that 2013 All-Ireland minor semi-final to Galway in controversial circumstances after a clear point by Barry Nash wasn’t awarded because of a glitch in the Hawk Eye system.

Yet when Ryan addressed the room at that medal presentation in 2014, he saw no point in revisiting that Hawk Eye issue with O’Neill present – Ryan focused instead on a new ruling set to come into play in 2014.

A motion brought to Congress by the Moyle Rovers club in Tipperary was passed which ensured that only U17 and U18 players would be eligible to compete at minor grade (then U18) at inter-county level.

By that stage though, the Limerick minor squad had already been back training since October 2013, which included six U16s in 2014.

Ryan and his management had never been slow to include U16s – Seamus Flanagan (then U16) played in the 2013 All-Ireland minor semi-final, having only been called into the squad 13 days beforehand.

Ryan pleaded with O’Neill to revisit the rule, and he believes that O’Neill took those concerns on board; shortly afterwards, the GAA deferred the implementation of the Moyle Rovers motion until January 1, 2015.

Six years on, Ryan is again seeking a similar level of flexibility from the GAA in exceptional circumstances. On Wednesday, the GAA announced – as expected – that the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups won’t take place in 2021.

However, as UL Fitzgibbon manager, Ryan is hoping that the GAA can allow some leeway for those players in their last year in college, many of whom may otherwise never get the chance to play in the coveted third-level competitions.

“I would just like to see those players who will be finished college in the summer of 2021 to at least be given another opportunity,” says Ryan. “They may no longer have any ties to their college by then but, if it suits those players, and if the college wants them, I think it would be fair to at least give them the chance to play Fitzgibbon or Sigerson next year."

Niall O'Leary in the shadow of Cork city during the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup match between UCC and UCD at the Mardyke. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Niall O'Leary in the shadow of Cork city during the Electric Ireland Fitzgibbon Cup match between UCC and UCD at the Mardyke. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Ryan isn’t the only one thinking along those lines. While all the colleges expected the decision on Wednesday, a number of them had already discussed potentially playing the 2021 competitions at the end of the year, preferably November and on a straight knockout basis.

With all colleges having to submit their official panels of 35 to Comhairle Ard Oideachais by January 5, a number of those colleges also want those panels to be eligible to play next winter, even if many of those players have already graduated by the end of the summer or autumn. Then the colleges hope that the 2022 Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups will precede as normal in January-February 2022.

Running off the 2021 Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups at the end of the season would be a stretch, especially when – hopefully – the provincial club championships will be ramping up by then. Yet, most of the players would still be available after the local club championships, while inter-county training won’t officially be allowed to take place – in the split-season model – until after January 1.

It’s unlikely that there will be much support within the hierarchy of the GAA to run off the 2021 competitions, especially when the season will technically be over with a new student year having started in the autumn.

However, Higher Education GAA stated in an email on Wednesday that while there won’t be any matches played in the academic year “the body have committed to a consultation process with key stakeholders in the hope that some of the disappointing outcomes of 2020/2021 can be offset going forward”.

Staging the competitions in November would probably lead to a cancellation of Third Level senior hurling and football leagues in 2021/2022. That would come at the cost of a knockout Fitzgibbon and Sigerson (for 2021) but many colleges still seem willing to pay that price.

Whatever happens, the coveted Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups are already on thin ice anyway, having been squeezed to near death in recent years. On the other hand, this potential development could lead to another possible solution to what is becoming an increasingly difficult equation to balance.

Mark Coleman drives the sliotar downfield for UCC in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mark Coleman drives the sliotar downfield for UCC in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The split season certainly won’t make it easy for Fitzgibbon and Sigerson players playing inter-county when the inter-county preparatory time will be further condensed from 2022 onwards. With squads unable to officially train until January 1, and with the inter-county provincial championships beginning earlier than usual, county managers will be reluctant to release their players for third level competitions in January and February.

That may necessitate moving the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson to November-December, whereby players involved in provincial club championships would again have difficult decisions to make.

They wouldn’t be the only ones. Will some inter-county players want to give up their ‘off-season’ – and only chance of a break after a long year - to play in the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson? Then again, many others may see that time as the ideal slot for the competitions, especially when there would be limited outside managerial interference, while also providing top-class training and an ideal platform for those players to prepare for an upcoming inter-county season.

There are plenty of questions still to be answered but – the current climate aside - the questions surrounding the future of the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups still seem to be increasing with each passing season.

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