Shane Stapleton discusses Championship structures and the problems faced by club players within the GAA
Twenty-four thousand sign up to the Club Players Association to tell the GAA they want the fixture crisis solved, and the association’s answer feels like a smack in the face to them.
How? By bringing in a Super 8 system that will ensure fewer club games during the summer months, and then by proposing a round-robin provincial hurling model that will do the same in the other code.
Until windows are built in for club games, an increase in the amount of inter-county action means the grassroots section will have less space in which to operate.
In both codes, we all want more quality clashes between the best sides, that’s true, but we need to find a more progressive, holistic approach.
Liam Griffin has said the CPA want April to be a club-only month and for that season to reconvene in August. Why won't the power-brokers engage fully? The GAA, with their proposal, are saying we’ll lurch along with another mutation that complicates matters further.
Yes, the GAA’s proposals in either code mean more games but here’s the downside to both the Super 8 and the hurling round-robins: there will be dead rubber games. Imagine Tipperary win their first three Munster games so that the final outing means nothing to them, but let’s say Cork or Waterford need them to win for their sake.
Results will be skewed, as they will in the Super 8 for the same reasons.
The criticism of these models is not solely down to how it affects club — though that remains the primary one — but how it doesn’t add value to the championship.
GAA management committee member Liam Sheedy says “there is something there that you can tap into” but this is not it. Reading between the lines, this is likely the first step in changing the championship model but why allow the club player to be beaten down for another stretch of years for little gain?
Why should a 30-year-old club footballer or hurler be consigned to play out his final years with the same system that guarantees him little other than waiting and hoping, and sometimes wanting his county team beaten so he can play?
Just anecdotally, I suffered a broken hand last month, missed two club championship games that were fixed inside five days of each other, and likely won't have the final group game until September. This is not a sympathy call, just another reminder of what we're dealing with. Think of the Dublin Under-21 footballers who were asked to choose between club and county recently too. Super 8s and round-robins don't fix this.
But again, leaving club aside for the moment — what is the ideal inter-county structure? The only model that people actually want to see is one where Tipp, Kilkenny, Galway, Clare, Wexford, Cork and co could all be playing home or away against each other in big games. In truth, the provinces are already boring, and now they’re being dragged out for longer with the same old fixtures over and over.
A huge gripe of mine is not seeing Clare vs Kilkenny in the championship over recent seasons, and this new mutation doesn't make it any more likely. How about Waterford v Galway?
Surely it would be better to play off the provinces in a month and then go to two groups of five/six with an open draw, for example. The top two from each go into the All-Ireland semi-finals, with a relegation clash for the bottom side in each. Get rid of the league if needs be.
Surely we can get the GAA to engage with the CPA — and the GPA if they ever truly want to make a wider impact — to find a modern approach to changing the structure. Watering down and slowly killing the provincial championship by making each game less important isn’t the way.
Each time the GAA proposes some new system that does not look after the same lifeblood of the association that they so regularly tell us is their focus, they are sending young men away in their droves. All around the country, clubs are struggling to retain the interest of the youth and that’s borne out with the drop-out rates.
There are many precocious talents out there but many don’t fulfill their potential until they're 23 or 24 — think of the myriad Kilkenny hurlers who had to bide their time under Brian Cody. So that means we are losing some potentially excellent players because the system has let them down. If there were guaranteed games for everyone at fixed times, more men would last the course. Being a club player should not be a yoke around your neck.
For CPA members in the country, it feels like their issues are beneath those of the inter-county, and that there appears to be little realisation that people could stop playing the sports.
While the GAA continues to tend to the roof, the building underneath is falling apart. Someday, Gaelic games will count that cost, but it doesn't have to be that way.