Structural changes in GAA will only cause the leagues to suffer
Why would any serious team go eyeballs-out for a league campaign early in 2018 season?
Lick the top of your pencils, class. A small exercise, if you please. It’s with regard to the 2018 Allianz Leagues in football and hurling and your sole task for the next 10 minutes is to go through the tables in both codes and find the teams who will be trying a leg next spring. There’s extra paper here if you need it. Bet you any money you won’t.
Let’s start with hurling. The last three league winners have come from Division 1B. One such happening would be an outlier, two back-to-back would still be a small sample size to be making any big pronouncements. But three in a row? That’s a pattern from which conclusions are only begging to be drawn.
Occam’s Razor tells us that the games in Division 1A are of a higher standard across the board than they are in 1B, requiring more intensity from the b of bang from the starter’s pistol. In 1B, you can ease yourself into the early part of the season safe in the knowledge that you’re all but certain to make the league quarter-finals, wherein you will meet a 1A team who’s just had to slog through five barn-burners in seven weeks.
Waterford, Clare and Galway have all profited from this route in the past three seasons. Limerick and Wexford have posted wins over 1A opposition as well. In 16 quarter-finals since the new format came in in 2014, the head-to-head between 1A and 1B stands at 10-6 – still in 1A’s favour but nothing like the blowout everyone predicted initially. It’s proof of nothing, of course, but it does suggest that hurling in the more sedate surrounds of Division 1B in the early part of the year isn’t the heaviest burden to carry.
Thick and fast
Now add in the fact what the new structure of the hurling championship voted in last weekend will mean for teams come the beginning of May. The days of one team starting their championship a month or even five weeks after the others are gone. Everyone will likely play at least one game in the opening fortnight, six teams will play two. The games will come thick and fast and the pace will be unforgiving.
So let’s say you’re an intercounty manager sitting down over the coming weeks to plan for 2018. What store are you going to put in the league? It’s going to take eight games to win it and if the mooted stipulation of no intercounty activity in April is to be honoured, that means eight games between the start of February and the end of March. All the while, in the background lurks the imperative to be hopping off the ground come the start of May.
Taking all that into account, who is likely to be going eyeballs-out from the start of February when the league that matters starts in May? Galway, Waterford and Tipperary surely have no call to be. Cork and Dublin will have new managers, Kilkenny will have new players to find.
You could see Davy Fitz taking a swing at it on the basis that it will do Wexford no harm to rack up wins of any stripe against the higher-ups. Limerick have probably spent too long trying to get out of 1B to give up now. And maybe, at a push, Clare might give it a lash in attempt to locate their groove again. But chances are, whoever is crowned league champions for 2018 will look back on it as something of a happy accident rather than a concrete pre-season goal ticked off.
Worth a candle
As for football, a few factors have coalesced over the past two seasons to make you wonder who will consider the 2018 league worth a candle to them. The introduction of the Super 8s is the most obvious, as it means the back end of the season will necessitate playing something like five games in seven weeks to win an All-Ireland. Look around the teams with All-Ireland notions – Kerry and Mayo will surely be blooding players, Tyrone could be (or at least ought to be) trying out a new system. Dublin weren’t at full-pelt at any stage during this year’s league, by design.
But even without the Super 8s, the worth of a good league has been questionable enough over the past few seasons for the next tier of teams below the big contenders. Donegal, Roscommon and Monaghan have all thrown huge efforts into the league recently only to end up with disappointing summers off the back of them.
The Rossies, indeed, went full circle on it and effectively sacrificed Division One status this year with the aim of targeting a Connacht title. Even if there was no Super 8s in 2018, you’d imagine Monaghan and Donegal would be driving with a light enough foot in the early part of the year given how limp their exits were in 2017. Kildare and Galway will have a certain amount of newly-promoted zeal about them but there’s no certainty it will last.
Oddly enough, then, the most watchable fare next spring will most likely take place down the divisions. For the majority of counties, a Division Two, Three or Four title is their only shot at silverware for the year. Since they continue to show no desire for a Tier Two championship, the spring competition is likely to be the long and short of it for 2018. So why wouldn’t a Clare or a Louth or a Tipperary go hell-for-leather to try and win Division Two? Ditto the likes of Derry, Longford and Armagh in Division Three and Laois, Carlow and Antrim in Division Four.
Next year will be the most radical GAA season since the foundation of the association. Compressed like none that has gone before, full of fits and starts and, initially at least, containing an element of blind flying for everyone. The chances of us getting a sight of anyone’s true colours before May are slimmer than they’ve ever been.