OPINION: Scrapping the pre-season provincial leagues is the antidote to GAA fixture woes

It wouldn't solve all the problems, but it would be a reasonable place to start

Bord na Mona O'Byrne Cup Round 2 Dublin vs UCD

©INPHO/Tommy Dickson 

For their opening round of this year's McGrath Cup, the Kerry footballers fielded a team entirely drawn from the U21 panel. Their seniors had just resumed training that week.

Dublin's O'Byrne cup clash against DCU witnessed their second string players take the field, while those from the first team holidayed in Jamaica.

The Mayo contingent that lost out to Dublin in last year's SFC All-Ireland final similarly flew to South Africa for their team holiday at the beginning of this month, meaning their first round of the FBD League left them without 14 players from their full compliment.

Image: Dublin and Mayo players battle for possession in the 2016 All-Ireland final.

It's pretty obvious that a theme is developing here, and you can choose to interpret it in one of two ways.

The first way allows you to look upon the pre-season competitions as an opportunity for teams to offer game time to inexperienced players, and let them man the fort in the absence of the A squad.

The other way of looking at it is with a mixture of bemusement and derision at just how these competitions have managed to last this long without getting the chop. 

It's very hard to see who benefits from these competitions anymore. The purpose of them - or at least the stipulated purpose of them - is to offer the perceived 'weaker' counties a chance to win some silverware before the competitions of greater value begin. 

That mission statement is all well and good, but a look at the number of counties who have won a provincial league title in the last seven years (beginning with the winners in 2010) paints a different picture.

Image: Dublin and Wexford playing out a recent O'Byrne Cup game.

O'Byrne Cup (Leinster senior football league)

2010 - DCU

2011 - Kildare

2012 - DCU

2013 - Kildare

2014 - Kildare

2015 - Dublin 

2016 - Meath

You have to stretch back to 1996 to locate the last time Wicklow won this competition, 2002 to find Carlow's last title and 2000 for Longford's most recent O'Byrne Cup triumph. 

Image: Kerry and Tipperary during a McGrath Cup meeting this year.

McGrath Cup (Munster Senior Football)  

2010 - Kerry

2011 - Kerry

2012 - Cork

2013 - Kerry

2014 - Cork

2015 - Waterford

2016 - Cork 

According to the Munster hurling website, the breakdown of teams who have won the Waterford Crystal Munster senior hurling league states that Tipperary lead the way with four titles, followed by Clare (3), Waterford (2) and Limerick (2). The competition is now sponsored by Co-Op Superstores.

Based on these results, the only reasonable conclusion is that the competitions are not fulfilling the promise made on the tin. The stronger teams - despite the loss of first-preference personnel - still have enough resources to intercept the riches that are intended for counties who will be ushered away later in the year, before championship honours are even down for decision.

Image: Munster Senior Hurling League Round 3 Cork vs Waterford

As for bedding in panel debutantes, the experimentation process within senior county squads doesn't end when the provincial leagues are over. Game time, either from the bench or in a starting jersey, will still be on offer when the National Leagues roll around. In fact, rotating players in and out of the starting team invariably lasts until the championship squad has to be finalised.

These pre-season competitions don't offer counties anything they need, they merely add to the volume of games that leave the overall fixture schedule looking chaotic. Accommodating the pre-season tournaments mean that the National Leagues can't start for another month, which in turn creates a knock-on effect on the championships.

There's also the unnecessary crossover with college competitions, which are approaching the championship end of their season. The opening round of this year's Sigerson Cup starts on January 25th, while the Fitzgibbon Cup starts the day before that.

College teams are also involved in the provincial league contests (some of which are still in session), meaning they can't fully dedicate their preparations to their respective championships.

Image: 2016 Independent.ie HE GAA Fitzgibbon Cup Final UL vs Mary Immaculate

And when second semester comes to an end, the physical burden continues as their club and county commitments come back into focus. 

There's nothing radical about scrapping the provincial leagues off the GAA roster. Predicting minimal outrage to such a notion would be a fairly safe wager, and team holidays can be enjoyed without having to make provisions for inconsequential matches carrying on at home.

The opening rounds of the National Leagues could be brought forward, and, if we're actually willing to take a radical step, then you could also start the inter-county championships a bit earlier too.

This is not a proposal that promises a tectonic shift for the GAA on the issue of fixture pile-up, but it could give it a shove in the right direction.