When Cork club delegates made the decision to go in a new direction with regard to the county championships back in the spring of 2019 as group stages were voted in, one stand-out change was the fact that the competition schedules would be more compacted.
At the time, the expectation was that clubs would play one round of hurling and one round of football in April 2020, with the championships then finished off with a sprint through the remainder of the games in the autumn, when Cork’s senior teams had been knocked out of their championships.
As it happened, both Cork sides were still standing when most of the 2020 club championship matches were played, in a block, a year ago, with the commencement of the new format delayed by the onset of Covid-19.
However, there was a grim irony in the fact that, rather than being self-contained in a two-month block, the new football top tier, the Bons Secours Hospital Premier Senior Championship, had 401 days between its first and last games, the latter being last Sunday as Nemo Rangers defeated Castlehaven to retain a title previously won at the end of October 2019.
Around the time of the change from the double-knockout system that had been in use, county secretary Kevin O’Donovan felt that a slimmer top grade in football would ensure a stiffer test for whoever emerged on top.
“Where we’ve struggled is in the Munster club senior football and that’s no reflection on our teams but they’re just not battle-hardened,” he said.
“I think you’d have the same teams winning whether it’s 12, 17 or 19 teams at senior, but what 12 teams gives you is a tougher battle. It’s a sacrifice that has to be made.”
Those views were echoed by then-county chairperson Tracey Kennedy.
“We haven’t solved all the problems, by any manner of means,” she said.
“What we should have is more competitive championships with the smaller competitions, that’s also quite a big change.”
So, while accepting that the 2020 championship is a small sample size, especially given the external circumstances which impinged on it, we felt it was worth examining if the change in system had an effect and how last season compared with the three before it.
While 2018 and 2019 had what had become the traditional back door for first-round losers, 2017 was the second year of an experiment where there were rounds 2A and 2B, with first-round winners playing each other, too. They would then progress to round four while 2A losers met 2B winners in round three. A nice idea in theory, but again susceptible to the problem of winning teams having too long between games.
In the 2017 preliminary and first rounds – a total of 15 games – the average winning margin was 7.8 points, with round 2A (winners v winners) yielding 7.33 and 2B (losers v losers) 5.57.
Then in round three, the average margin was 6.33, with the fourth round 8.6, quarter-finals 3.25, semi-finals 12.5 (!) and two points separating Nemo Rangers from St Finbarr’s in the final replay.
The return to the more familiar system for 2018 saw 10 games across the preliminary and first rounds, a total winning margin of 50 points giving an average of 5.0. In the losers’ round, it was 4.2, then in round three it was 6.22, quarter-finals 6.5, semi-finals 2.25 (the Duhallow-Castlehaven tie went to three games) and the final saw the Barrs beat Duhallow by three.
The following year, the last of the old format, the opening round average had increased to 7.9 points per win, with 8.8 the average difference in the second round as losers met each other.
Round three (4.375) and the quarter-final (4.0) were similar, but the semi-finals had an average margin of 9.5 while Nemo had four to spare on Duhallow in the decider.
With three groups of four teams, last year was a big move away from the norm, but there were still some one-sided games – Group 1 (St Finbarr’s, Ballincollig, Clonakilty and Carrigaline) had an average of 7.16, Group 2 (Castlehaven, Newcestown, Carbery Rangers and Ilen Rovers) was 9.5 and Group 3 (Nemo, Valley Rovers, Douglas and Bishopstown) 6.0 – the combined average was 7.55.
Things were more competitive in the quarter-finals, with an average winning margin of 4.0, while Nemo beat Duhallow by a point in one semi-final and the Haven saw off the Barrs on penalties – an average of 0.5 points per game. Then, last Sunday, Nemo won the final by three.
As we said, it’s a small sample and there will always be tiers within tiers. It’s something worth revisiting again when the championship concludes – hopefully a lot sooner than 401 days’ time.