THERE was a time when the third level and secondary school competitions heralded the beginning of the GAA’s calendar in Cork and beyond.
In 2023, there is a new and much more different reality. Pre-season inter-county tournaments and college competitions are vying for players availability at the exact same time.
It is only January but there has already been a plethora of on-field action to keep Cork GAA supporters engaged. National League and provincial championships are still some way off but that hasn’t stopped pre-season competitions from filling up the early weeks of the New Year.
What used to be a traditionally quiet time for GAA aficionados is now bordering on the complete opposite.
Between the Co-Op SuperStores Munster Hurling League, McGrath Cup, Sigerson Cup, Fitzgibbon Cup and Harty Cup, the cream of the rebel county’s established and emerging inter-county talents are in high demand.
Be it representing county, college or school, the first month of the New Year has become an incredibly hectic one for GAA inter-county players inside and outside of Cork.
So, are we asking too much of amateur players during the early months of the year?
In 2023, an inter-county representative is now in the gym, training or playing games from before January right up until the following December (if still involved at All-Ireland club level).
The newly introduced split season means every inter-county competition has to be completed halfway through the year to give enough oxygen for club championships to breathe.
Unfortunately, the knock-on effect of earlier starts for this year’s third level college competitions (to facilitate national league, provincial and All-Ireland championship start dates) means the New Year’s intensity is ratcheting up like never before.
With that in mind, it was interesting to note the negative headlines emanating from the Leinster province following the cancellation of recent O’Byrne Cup fixtures.
First up was Wexford versus Louth with the latter opting out as they had already qualified for the knockout phase. Louth’s Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin decided a January inter-county dead-rubber was of little use and did not fulfil the fixture. Upcoming Sigerson Cup, exams and work commitments were cited as reasons even though Wexford were more than willing to play.
A day later, Glen Ryan’s Kildare followed suit and announced the lilywhites would not field against Westmeath. Neither team was able to qualify for the knockout stages and another O’Byrne Cup encounter fell by the wayside.
A third game between Carlow and Laois was also cancelled where, yet again, Sigerson Cup commitments along with sickness and injuries were the combined causes.
Things escalated even further when Offaly manager Liam Kearns blasted the integrity of the O'Byrne Cup despite sealing a semi-final berth by overcoming Dublin.
Kearns’ side played two O'Byrne Cup ties in four days whilst Louth gained a week of rest (having opted out of facing Wexford) ahead of hosting Offaly in the last four.
The Offaly manager’s point is crystal clear. Shoehorning so many inter-county and college games into the month of January is doing more harm than good and affecting the integrity of both competitions.
Cleary and Ryan will tell you that they need every competitive match they can get to see what their respective panels are made of. Utilising a large squad for the McGrath Cup and Munster Senior League is now a necessity because so many Cork players have college commitments.
Inter-county managers are left with little choice but to field experimental line-ups in pre-season games in which they might have wished to do otherwise.
What’s becoming abundantly clear is that the doubling up of college and inter-county early-season games are beginning to have a detrimental impact on players and the competitions themselves.
On that point, MTU Cork football manager Pat Spratt made some interesting comments. Spratt believes, for some individuals, that the enjoyment of lining out in the Sigerson Cup is beginning to wane. Alterations to the inter-county schedule are the chief reason.
Nine of Spratt’s players had Cork senior football McGrath Cup requirements during January. That meant the MTU manager didn’t have access to his full squad, to train or play challenge matches, prior to losing their Sigerson opener 2-11 to 0-13 at home to UCD.
Pat Spratt wants what is best for Cork football but you can understand his and other third level college managers growing frustrations. The same applies to inter-county managers like Liam Kearns who are being forced to chop and change their starting line-ups, when they may not have planned to, for games taking place in the month of January.
There are no winners in the current scenario. GAA managers, supporters, inter-county and college players are all being affected. Unfortunately, a solution is not appearing on the horizon because of such a packed early season calendar.