Reinventing the wheel

With calls to reform the All-Ireland Championship getting louder, Seán O’Neill takes a look at what is being suggested

This summer’s All-Ireland Championships have been  labelled one of the most exciting in recent memory with Donegal winning their second ever Sam Maguire and the Kilkenny-Galway decider being the first replayed All-Ireland hurling final in over half a century. Despite the exhilarating nature of the championship this season, calls have been made within GAA circles for a possible restructure of the Championship system.

The current qualifier system has been established for over ten years. It has certainly served the association fantastically over the last decade, with the emergence of smaller counties such as Wexford and Fermanagh on to the bigger stage in Croke Park.  Even though the current method has worked effectively, calls have been made for another reconstruction of the championship.

In 2001, when the blue ribbon event of Gaelic football was altered, sections of the hierarchy disagreed with the abolition of the old knockout system. So how would they feel if the current system moved further away and became based upon a system with four groups of eight teams?

The issue that is really impeding the GAA from concluding on a decision over a new frame-work for the championships is the Provincial Championships. The early round games in Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster are seen as part of the organisation’s rich heritage. The rivalry of local counties battling it out is part of the ethos of the GAA.

The qualifier system seems to have undermined the early round games, as the bigger guns seem to be trying to conserve energy for the later rounds of the Championship when games become increasingly competitive. The provincial championships have certainly become less important to giants of the game such as Dublin and Kerry in football and Kilkenny in hurling.

Nevertheless, provincial games are a sacred part of the association and the hierarchy seem reluctant to retire the age-old system. If the new style to the championship was instigated, it would require three teams from Leinster and one from Ulster to leave their current province. Under the current structures, it is possible to win a Munster title with two wins, while winning Leinster can take as many as four.

The main problem with this change would be the idea of local derbies. New rivalries would effectively be forced upon the counties that make the switch while old rivalries would lose their bite, with the teams no longer facing-off regularly. It is hard to see counties such as Wexford, Fermanagh or Longford feeling truly at home in their new group.

Although there have been cries to reinvigorate the game with a new format, some have even called to revert to the traditional style of the GAA Championships where everybody got one chance. The cut and thrust of the knock-out games would certainly mean teams would have to be on top of their game earlier in the championship.

Others have called for the Championship to adopt the structure of a league, but why would the GAA move to make the premier cup competition into a league, when there is already one in place? Perhaps it would be successful if teams took the league more seriously.

The complaint that players, in particular, have over the current structure is that too few games are guaranteed. The issue that exists with players is that they train as hard as any professional athletes, for seven to eight months of the year, but only have two chances to get it right once summer comes round.

If teams are placed within a group format of either four or eight teams, they will be guaranteed a series of games in which they can perform. Complaints over the standard of smaller counties have been levelled at the likes of Wicklow and Roscommon, but if these so-called weaker teams gain more competitive action in the white heat of championship they will inevitably improve.

Players and managers are struggling to meet large demands. They train tirelessly for several months with the possibility of their summer lasting a few worthless weeks. The club game is also being affected with inter-county fixtures gaining priority. If a group system existed, set dates for games would help clubs establish when their season will begin and finish.

The GAA is in the unusual position of having its elite completion run in a non-league format. This is incredible as the league format is king in almost every other team sport. In the GAA, though, we have seen that tradition plays a major part in making changes to rules and formats with the prime example being rule 42, which led to extraordinary debate.

The GAA is an undoubtedly conservative organisation, so any changes to the current system would be considered truly radical. GAA players are among the finest athletes in the world and make massive sacrifices throughout the year in order to be competitive, yet they seek no financial reward for all their hard work. To honour their commitment with two meaningful games a summer is perhaps too little.

The debate over whether the championship should be restructured seems like it will rumble on for a while yet, with many pros and cons being argued for both sides. Despite the opposition to these radical ideas, there would appear to be an acceptance in the corridors of power that the games of Gaelic football and hurling need some sort of a tune-up. Whether or not we’ll see a change is a question for another day.