Christy O'Connor: Even a reduced league will be vital for hurlers when they return

GAA players can't just go straight into championship preparation mode after such a long break
Christy O'Connor: Even a reduced league will be vital for hurlers when they return

Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork in action against Mikey Kearney of Waterford in last year's league. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

THE morning after the Government recently released ‘The Path Ahead’ document, GAA President at the time John Horan told RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne show of the Association’s intention to stage a full games programme if inter-county games are allowed from the beginning of May.

Playing the National League first was the obvious intended starting point but that was clearly dependent on a return to inter-county training activity on the opening weekend of April.

Horan didn’t rule out the club season being run-off in between the League and championship. That may have been a nod to Government regulations and the potential of crowds returning to stadiums later in the season. But there doesn’t seem to be any real appetite for such a scenario amongst the wider GAA public now.

Despite the success of the club championships last year, the inter-county game was sorely missed during the summer. What’s more, inter-county players have already begun preparing for a summer championship while club players are targeting a club campaign, both mentally and physically, to begin later in the year.

In that context, the National Leagues have never been more important. Inter-county football teams may have only had two league games in the lead-in to last year’s championship, while hurlers were straight into action. But at least players had an intense club campaign behind them to try and get up to speed for the inter-county game.

Not having a league this time around would leave teams undercooked and underprepared, but it would also open up a frenzied search for challenge games. 

That mad scramble would definitely entail significant travel with teams looking to play sides outside their own province.

The GAA will be keen to avoid such a scenario and the hurling League looks set to be reshaped into geographical-based pods of three in each Division. The four groupings are likely to comprise; Galway, Clare and Limerick; Tipperary, Cork and Waterford; Kilkenny, Laois and Wexford; Antrim, Dublin and Westmeath.

Travel will be limited with the exception of Antrim’s group. Yet Antrim chairman Ciarán McCavana recently said that if travel was a concern, neutral venues should be considered. There is a precedent there with Antrim playing Waterford in Dundalk in last year’s football league to ease the huge travel burden on Waterford for that away fixture.

McCavana also made an important point in relation to the importance of staging the league. “I don’t see how you’re keeping Covid down by not playing another two or three matches,” he said. “Because the team will be doing something anyway like playing a challenge game.” 

The hurling league will be a heavily watered-down version of last year’s two groups of six, but every team will be guaranteed two games with the top teams from each group making it to the semi-finals. With two hurling teams (in each division) guaranteed four matches, and two football teams in each division sure of five games, the league’s proposed starting point in early May would see the competitions wrapped up by mid-June, which would clear the way for a championship start in late June.

Not every team may want to go flat out for the league with the competition being so close to the championship. But the propensity for high-quality games will be huge considering players will be straining at the leash after coming out of cold storage for up to five-six months.

By that stage, some players – in both codes – will have only played two-three inter-county matches in league and championship in 14 months. Players will be even more mad for road again with league matches (apart from finals) being staged in the summer for the first time since 1997. And back then, the edge was missing from those games because they were played during the championship, when some teams had already exited the championship.

Cork manager Kieran Kingston. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Cork manager Kieran Kingston. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Everyone hopes that the GAA will be able to proceed from April 5, especially when there’s still a lot of anger at the GAA being denied elite sporting status for inter-county players when it was granted to League of Ireland soccer players.

PROFESSIONAL v AMATUER

The Government’s argument was that the League of Ireland employs around 200 full-time sports people and a similar number part-time, with the professional aspect of that sport allowing their activity to continue. Yet that distinction between some LOI clubs and some inter-county teams was, and still is, hard to justify Apart from health questionnaires and temperature checks, there is no mandatory Covid-testing in the GAA. 

Yet in January, a survey showed that 85% of professional League of Ireland players were happy to start the 2021 season without Covid-19 testing.

The GAA proved how efficient it was at health-checking during last year’s championship but the biggest difference between GAA and the LOI is that there are only 20 LOI teams in the Premier and First Divisions, with six based in Dublin.

In total, just 13 counties are involved in the LOI, which is in stark contrast to the 32 counties involved in the GAA, with almost all having two senior inter-county teams operating in both codes.

Regionalising the league groups is aimed at cutting down travel but staging the leagues was still considered too great a risk with that volume of player and personnel traffic at a time when the virus numbers were still so high.

The pathway going forward should be far easier now for the GAA to negotiate if the green light is given on April 5, which would then make it easier to stage a league campaign beginning in May.

If that happens, even without crowds, the 2021 leagues would be the most eagerly awaited in GAA history. And given their timing so close to a summer championship, the quality should be higher than ever too.

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