Restarting with inter-county is still the best way forward
By Shane Brophy
The announcement by the GAA to halt the return to inter-county training until at least Easter certainly caught many by surprise.
There wasn’t much optimism anyway of inter-county teams being allowed to return to training anyway after March 5th when the current set of restrictions come to an end, but the GAA’s announcement of their deferral by another four weeks more or less confirmed that this is going to be the government’s plan of action as well, apart from the phased return of students to school and the reopening of construction.
So where does it leave the 2021 GAA season, for both club and inter-county?
Initially, there was some chatter that the GAA would revert to what they did in 2020 and play the club championships first with the inter-county season following in the second half of the year. However, for club matches to happen, the country has to be at Level 2 restrictions and no one can confidently predict that we will be there in June or July, like we were twelve months ago.
So, the strong likelihood remains that the GAA’s initial plan for 2021 will remain with the inter-county season first (if its elite status is restored to allow them to train and play in Level 5 restrictions) although on a much-restricted timeframe.
Initially, the National Leagues were due to get underway on 27-28 February, to be completed in by April 4th in football and a week later for hurling. Now, if training isn’t allowed to resume until Easter and with counties promised three or four weeks of training time, you would be looking at 1-2 May before the leagues could get underway.
It had already been planned that the National Football Leagues would be shortened into five rounds with each county getting three games on a regional basis within each division, followed by semi-finals and finals. The hurling league was initially unchanged with a six-round competition with every county getting five matches, but this now has to change with the 12 division 1 teams being split into four groups of three or three groups of four, depending on what Croke Park decides.
If the GAA still decides to go ahead with a reduced format National League, it will have knock-on implications for the championships, which were due to begin on 17-18 April but on the basis of this delay, they will be doing well to start on 12-13 June.
In terms of their initial plan, the hurling championship was set to be played in the same format as last year with knockout provincial championships plus backdoor qualifiers and based on a mid-June start, you would be looking at an August 22nd All-Ireland Final.
However, this year’s hurling championship was based on a 12-week window, rather than eight weeks which was the case last year, so there is a case for tightening up that schedule where the final could be played in the first half of August.
The football championship is a bit trickier as last year it was a straight knockout competition played off over eight weekends. This year they were allowing for a backdoor option, including the Tailteann Cup for divisions 3 & 4 teams that don’t make a provincial final. This would have required fourteen weekends to complete and based on the current plan, an All-Ireland final would be played on the last weekend in August.
However, the provincial championships were due to be played off over seven weekends, but you could play them off in four or five weekends to save timeand bring the final date forward, like hurling.
However, the longer the GAA allows the inter-county championships to play out, the greater the chance towards July and August they will be able to get greater numbers of spectators into matches and earn some much needed revenue.
Even at this stage, we are looking at August All-Ireland finals in both hurling and football, and for some counties it would mean club championships not getting underway until late in that month, or even September.
At this point in time, that seems like an eternity away for club players to wait and for many it would mean over a year without competitive championship action by that stage. Of course, there will be county league and challenge matches played beforehand but as we all know, championship is all that matters.
However, staying with the plan and playing club championships after inter-county would work in clubs favour. The GAA are still planning to resume the playing of the provincial and All Ireland Club Championships this season, however, if those competitions were delayed until next January, it would leave an extended period from late August into early December to play county championships.
Tipperary County Board were forced to play off its main adult championships last year in eleven weekends, in advance of a six week period for the inter-county teams to prepare for the championship. That training period won’t be there this year so there could be anything up to sixteen weeks to play county championships from August into December. County finals so close to Christmas might not seem right but for one year in the circumstances, clubs would gladly accept it.
If it were the case that more weekends were available, it would allow Tipperary officials to restore quarter finals to the football championships which were removed last year, as well as possibly restoring the divisional hurling championships, with or without the link to the county championship knockout stages.