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Seán Moran: Sigerson and Fitzgibbon Cups, the last frontier of the fixture wars

Colm O’Rourke’s concerns about player welfare are valid but the obvious solution mightn’t suit county managers

It’s a hardy perennial at this stage but in an era of greatly improved attention to the detail of player welfare, the months of January and February stand out as an anachronism.

The worst weeks of the year for weather, they also see the heaviest traffic of the calendar when it comes to elite Gaelic games activity.

It’s the last remaining vestiges of the curse of multi-eligibility that in full bloom saw young players lining out for up to a dozen teams in a given year when the planets aligned (maligned) for dual players young enough to play minor and old enough to play for their third-level colleges.

That exposure has been shut down throughout the underage structures, even if the concept of ‘decoupling’ minor players from adult fixtures is still causing rows in some places.


Then there is the constant demand on top players, who on one level are fortunate enough to go the distance with their county in the championship and also with club. David Clifford, Footballer of the Year, played 34 matches by the time he won the junior All-Ireland with his club Fossa in January.

Understandably, county manager Jack O’Connor has given Clifford a breather but brother Paudie was back at the weekend in Kerry’s second league fixture.

Glen players had hardly lodged their objection to the All-Ireland final defeat by Kilmacud when Rory Gallagher had a couple of them lining out for Derry in the first league fixture against Limerick.

The greatest friction at this time of the year, however, takes place between the demands of intercounty and third-level where two of the oldest competitions in the GAA, the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson Cups, are coming to the boil.

Had Clifford still been a scholarship student at University of Limerick, he have been straight into Sigerson action as soon as his club season had finished.

Meath manager Colm O’Rourke’s comments at the weekend got a lot of attention. In his first season as an intercounty manager, he has also been a supporter of higher education games and was a decorated UCD player in the 1970s.

“The timing of the Sigerson is all wrong,” he said after Meath’s defeat of Clare at the weekend. “We have six players tied up in it and we had to take off five of them today. There’s two of them now injured with hamstrings. They’re pure overuse injuries. It’s a disgrace, it’s abuse of players and it shouldn’t be going on at this time.”

Neither was this an isolated experience. Dublin hurlers in Dungarvan had to replace two-goal forward Cian O’Sullivan with Ronan Hayes because of a hamstring injury. Hayes promptly joined him after six minutes on the pitch, having sustained the same injury. He and O’Sullivan had both been in Fitzgibbon action a few days previously.

O’Rourke had already been on the record as favouring a move to the pre-Christmas months and there remain pockets of opinion that believe such a move would solve the problem.

It is now well over 50 years since the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson were moved from their original autumn scheduling to the spring, which means that the tournaments have spent about half of their existence being played in the early months of the year.

There are pressing structural issues concerning such a switch, as third level had increasingly adopted a ‘semesterisation’ system, generally with Christmas exams. That would make November an unpopular time to schedule competitions of championship intensity.

The Higher Education Leagues would also be displaced and few believe that moved to the new year, they would attract anything like the participation level they currently have.

Those sympathetic to the sector would argue that ring-fencing students for their college teams for the short duration of the Fitzgibbon and Sigerson makes most sense. O’Rourke himself made the same case four years ago, as did Galway coach John Divilly, formerly a UCD Sigerson winning player and manager.

It’s an obvious solution but would hardly find widespread favour with county teams.

Whereas the initial move to an early-year calendar in the late 1960s didn’t clash very much with intercounty schedules, as the national league was strung out either side of the new year and dates weren’t hard to find, the current environment sees fixtures riveted together.

From this year on, league performance may influence a county’s championship standing and the cockpit of this struggle will be Division Two where Meath are fighting for promotion. Any slippage – so far so good for O’Rourke’s side, who are on a maximum four points – and you could be looking at having kept your players fresh for the Tailteann Cup.

The point has been made before that the GAA owe a lot to the Higher Education sector. Over the years, the clubs on campus have trained future administrators as well as top-level players and provided a home from home for new recruits, many in a new and challenging environment.

Scholarships are abundant and whereas college authorities haven’t as a rule looked for a pound of flesh when players who benefit from such schemes have been unable to play for their third-level teams, the future is uncertain.

There are understandable concerns within those GAA clubs that these growing pressures will influence how the institutions look on Gaelic games when it comes to resources – and many intercounty teams avail of these facilities as well.

Leaving aside material issues, the experience of university games is meant to include enjoyment and the sense of conviviality that comes with shared enterprise.

These days coaches admit they are doing well to get intercounty players for matches, never mind training. The schedules no longer allow the excitement of the finals weekend that used to be part and parcel of Fitzgibbon and Sigerson involvement.

Only recently the Waterford IT hurlers from two decades ago had a get-together at the races in Gowran. As someone involved in the GAA’s Higher Education organisation said: “You’re unlikely to see that in 20 years.”