IN ALL FAIRNESS - The GAA has a League problem

When you have competitions that managers aren’t keen on getting to finals in or indeed winning, you have a massive problem and that is what the GAA have now with the National Leagues in both hurling and football.

The championship has become so all encompassing that the closer to the end of the league you get, the more you can’t trust what you are seeing from any team, and we got more evidence of that last weekend. No team is sent out to deliberately to lose a game but the manner in which they are prepared and/or selected can go a long way to determine whether players are able to give the best of themselves to win a match.

Limerick certainly didn’t look remotely like themselves in their league semi-final loss to Kilkenny, particularly in terms of their energy and intensity. Tipperary certainly had similar elements in their loss to Clare, but Liam Cahill’s charges don’t have the credit in the bank compared to Limerick where a bad day can be written off as just that.

Tipperary’s performance on Sunday follows in the same vein to those against Westmeath, Limerick, and Antrim where they were decent but no more than that. This is in comparison to their opening two league games where they were full of pace and intensity against Dublin and Galway but haven’t been near that level sense.

There is an argument to be made that once Tipperary won their first two games which all but guaranteed their place in the top-tier of next years restructured division 1 that Liam Cahill’s focus shifted completely to championship and could explain why they haven’t been as sharp in their last four games as they look to peak for the championship.

As disappointing as the manner of Tipp’s league exit on Sunday was, the ultimate judgement of their year will come in the championship, as it will for all teams, particularly the five in Munster who cannot look beyond being in the top-three come the end of the group phase.

There’s no doubting that Tipp peaked early in the 2023 championship against Clare, Cork, and Limerick, but come the business end against Waterford and Galway, they didn’t look like they had enough left in the tank. That was the biggest learning curve for Liam Cahill and the one that he will ultimately be judged on again this summer.

While he was disappointed with the manner of the performance on Sunday in the tone of his comments, his body language and facial expressions, in his interview afterwards in O’Moore Park didn’t suggest a manager feeling the pressure, and that while not wanting to finish the league in the manner they did, can now fully focus on the championship.

Tipp have to be right for the championship as it is a tough schedule, starting off with two away games in the space of six days against Limerick and Waterford, then a two week gap before finishing with two home games in the space of seven days against Cork and Clare.

Starting out against the All-Ireland champions in their own back-yard is as tough as they come but it is not without its opportunities, particularly as Limerick will be coming off an intense opening round game away to Clare the week before, so Tipp will be fresh. In the four iterations of the round-robin so far, teams that have had the bye on the opening weekend have a won two and lost two record. This is Tipp’s first time having a bye in the first round so they have to get the timing right as while they’ll be fresh, Limerick will have match practise from a confidence boosting win or a motivating inducing defeat, or could a draw against Clare be the best result from a Tipp point of view.

But back to the leagues, there’s no doubting they have lost their importance with the development of the round-robin formats in the hurling & football championships, and the powers that be in the GAA need to assess that and what changes are needed.

If the league is to be retained as a separate competition but given greater competitiveness than what we have been getting in recent years, then a minimum three week break is needed for all counties between the end of the league and the start of the championship.

In terms of hurling with the Munster & Leinster Championships starting on the third weekend in April, the last weekend in March should be the cut-off point for the league. In football, as their provincials start earlier, Patrick’s Day would be a good finish date, and it would also give that day a purpose that has been lost since moving the Club finals to January.

Change is certainly needed as what we are seeing in the league isn’t fair on spectators who don’t know from game to game whether a team are in a position to give their best due to the block of training they are in. Allianz have been a great sponsor for thirty years of the league and if they start to get shifty, you know the GAA will take note then.