IN the lead up to the All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals in mid-December, after all the provincial finals and the Galway county final replay had been played, the GAA gave the four clubs involved – Ballyhale Shamrocks, Ballygunner, Dunloy and St Thomas’ – the option of moving their game back to after Christmas.
There was bound to be a scheduling clash considering the World Cup final was on the same time as the double-header was pencilled in.
Yet that slot was the only available option for a double header on Jones’ Road as the All-Ireland club camogie finals were down for Croke Park on the Saturday, while Semple Stadium was not available for a standalone game between Ballyhale and Ballygunner that day either as the pitch was undergoing remedial work.
However, three of the four clubs were in favour of playing the match before Christmas.
St Thomas’ were the only club who wished to push it out until January but they had legitimate reasons as Darragh Burke was originally due to get married on the Saturday.
The wedding was subsequently moved back until the following Thursday, but a January date would have also suited St Thomas’ because two of their most important players – Shane Cooney and James Regan – were still recovering from hamstring injuries.
Cooney came on against Dunloy but the extra few weeks would have given both players a much better chance of being fit for a game they lost to the Ulster champions.
Defeat turned the whole affair into a disappointing saga for Thomas’ but the confluence of events underlined the difficulties around scheduling and trying to fit so much into a calendar season, even within the split season model.
Ballyhale and Dunloy were certainly able to enjoy their Christmas, especially when they had five weeks to prepare for an All-Ireland final towards the end of January.
It was even more satisfying again for Ballyhale when they knew what it was like over Christmas when having to get ready for an All-Ireland semi-final in early January.
"I think it's a disgrace, the 5th of January, we have no time off,” said TJ Reid after Ballyhale beat St Mullins in the Leinster final in December 2019. “Christmas is a time to spend with your family and friends and enjoy it.
"Now Henry (Shefflin – manager at the time) has to drag us off training after Christmas. I think it’s wrong. It’s not fair on us.”
Reid was speaking his mind but he had legitimate reasons for being angry as he and his Ballyhale team-mates on the 2019 Kilkenny squad missed Kilkenny’s team holiday to Miami as a result of the new scheduling.
The split season has changed everything, but it is still a major headache trying to squeeze so much into the calendar season.
As early as last June, provinces had been planning to finish their championships in the first half of December but that was too idealistic.
As the season segued into winter, it was clear that the calendar needed to be expanded even more for the completion of the provincial club championships.
In early October, Central Council endorsed a recommendation by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) to switch the football All-Ireland semi-finals from December to January.
The original dates for the football semi-finals had been December 10/11 but they were pushed back four weeks until this weekend.
That switch necessitated extending the club season by an extra week as the All-Ireland senior finals as per the GAA’s 2022-23 master fixtures were due to be played in Croke Park on January 15.
The All-Ireland club hurling semi-finals were able to go ahead before Christmas but the GAA had allowed for that leeway of pushing them back until after Christmas if the clubs had wished to do so.
In any case, the semi-finals had already been moved back by two weeks as the semi-finals were originally scheduled for December 3/4.
Adjustments and flexibility is inevitable in the early phases within a split season model, but at least the calendar is moving in the right direction.
All four provincial football finals were played in January last year, with the All-Ireland final played in mid-February.
The All-Ireland semi-finals are taking place again in January, but at least the final has been brought forward by three weeks.
The All-Ireland Junior and Intermediate football semi-finals are also on this weekend but, while those games are three weeks earlier than last year, the semi-final winners will only have one week to prepare for next weekend’s All-Ireland finals.
The new scheduling does compromise players’ Christmas.
On the otherhand, the club scene has become so professional now that there is little or no mental switch-off.
It may have had as much to do with strengthening team-spirit than fitness loading but many club teams still often trained over Christmas under the old system.
Given the new timing, the Christmas break would have been viewed as an important week of preparation in the countdown to this weekend. Especially when most of the hard work and tactical planning is done 7-14 days out from such a big match.
That requires a totally different focus but it’s much easier to sustain momentum and rhythm in a shorter window, rather than provincial winners having to wait nearly three months for a single fixture like they had in the past.
Consensus is always difficult to find. Playing all games within the calendar season may still be too idealistic.
But at least the GAA are getting closer to finding the right balance.