New for­mat throws up many im­pon­der­ables

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Nicky English

The new cham­pi­onship for­mat is shap­ing up like Brexit. Every­body knows that it’s com­ing but no­body’s quite sure of the prac­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions. So far, the per­cep­tion is that you’re go­ing to need a deeper squad be­cause of the like­li­hood of in­juries and the lack of lead-up time be­tween games. This im­pacts on ev­ery­thing in­clud­ing me­dia cov­er­age, which will be split be­tween four big fix­tures ev­ery week­end in­stead of one or two.

It also af­fects the hard­core hurl­ing pub­lic, who won’t be able to see any­thing close to all of the fix­tures. Like many oth­ers, I’d al­ways at­tend both the Le­in­ster and Mun­ster fi­nal and that won’t be pos­si­ble this year, which I be­lieve is a mis­take that might be looked at in any re­view.

The pro­vin­cial cham­pi­onships have hardly changed at all in the his­tory of the GAA and now that they have, it’s a pretty rad­i­cal de­par­ture. It’s ex­cit­ing for play­ers, who want to play matches and the pub­lic, who want to see them.

One is­sue I can fore­see with the for­mat and its four matches in five weeks is that it will make it very hard to work in be­tween. Any­one man­ag­ing a team is go­ing to find it dif­fi­cult to turn up on a Mon­day, have a nor­mal out­put dur­ing the week and get ready for the next match.

In fact I imag­ine you could see a sit­u­a­tion in the fu­ture where play­ers are re­quired to take hol­i­days at this stage to pre­pare be­tween matches and I’m not sure an ap­proach like that was en­vis­aged when the for­mat was de­vised.

No­body has any ex­pe­ri­ence of how to op­er­ate this sys­tem and that in it­self makes it ex­cit­ing. I’d prob­a­bly have pre­ferred the ex­tra matches at the other end of the cham­pi­onship, like the Su­per 8s in foot­ball, but ul­ti­mately this is a step along the way and it will be in­ter­est­ing to see where the cham­pi­onship is in 10 years.

It also af­fects how we look at the cham­pi­onship. This time last year I had a pretty good idea that Gal­way were well-placed to win even if you couldn’t be cer­tain, given their re­cent his­tory. They had played well in the league and had the right pro­file of player.

You couldn’t be as sure about Kilkenny on the ba­sis of win­ning this year’s league be­cause; a) it was played in win­ter con­di­tions; and b) most teams fre­quently changed their se­lec­tions whereas from the sec­ond half against Clare on, Kilkenny line-outs were rel­a­tively sta­ble.

Brian Cody’s at­ti­tude to the league mightn’t have changed – and I think his pri­or­ity was find­ing a team rather than a panel – but I’m not sure that the com­pe­ti­tion still com­ple­ments the cham­pi­onship.

Same sig­nals

At the same time, it’s all about small mar­gins. In 2017 Kilkenny fell out of the top four for only the sec­ond time in 13 years and it wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing if they get back this sum­mer, es­pe­cially as last year’s semi-fi­nal­ists have all shown a de­gree of frailty so far this sea­son. But pick­ing win­ners at this stage is near im­pos­si­ble.

Gal­way haven’t sent out the same sig­nals and I’m not con­vinced they’re shap­ing up to take this cham­pi­onship by the scruff of the neck. If they redis­cover their best form they’ll take beat­ing but at the mo­ment the jury has to be out.

Their first big state­ment last year was de­stroy­ing Tip­per­ary in the league fi­nal. Tipp did well to re­cover from that dis­as­ter and nearly close the whole gap on Gal­way in the All-Ire­land semi-fi­nal.

It will al­most be as hard to re­cover from last month’s de­feat in this year’s league fi­nal, against Kilkenny. Mick Ryan does have one-third of a team to come back and the for­wards will be far stronger with Séa­mus Cal­lanan, Noel McGrath and Dan McCor­mack.

Prob­lems are at the other end. Michael Cahill’s now a doubt and they have to do some­thing to get James Barry’s con­fi­dence up at full back. Dar­ragh Mooney was the re­serve goal­keeper last year but he has to start com­mand­ing the stage and not look like he’s still au­di­tion­ing.

Water­ford in my view will re­ally suf­fer from not hav­ing home matches. They have to go to the Gaelic Grounds to play Tipp, who will have al­ready faced Lim­er­ick there just a fort­night pre­vi­ously.

Then there’s the miss­ing play­ers. Shane Ben­nett is a huge loss. His hard work last year, hod car­ry­ing and win­ning frees, prob­a­bly ob­scured his tal­ents but he has ob­vi­ous qual­ity as well. Maybe Tom Devine can take over that role now that he’s back but Derek McGrath would pre­fer to have the two of them avail­able.

Cork have flown un­der the radar but they have one big ad­van­tage; the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be a great venue for their sup­port­ers and they’ll pull in big crowds, which is part of the mys­tique they’re al­ways ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing.

Dark horses

Lim­er­ick will be dan­ger­ous dark horses. It sounds con­tra­dic­tory but their un­der-21s have pro­duced some very good for­wards and yet they need to con­trol the num­ber of wides. The point is that I think they have the qual­ity and it’s a mat­ter of prepa­ra­tion and com­po­sure.

They’re well ca­pa­ble of beat­ing Tip­per­ary in the first match and that would put the cat among the pi­geons.

It’s worth point­ing out that per­haps the most im­por­tant fix­ture of both pro­vin­cial cham­pi­onships will be Dublin and Of­faly. The loser of this will al­most cer­tainly not be in the MacCarthy Cup at all next year, which would be a mas­sive blow for ei­ther county.

I think Dublin are vul­ner­a­ble. They have strug­gled in the league whereas Kevin Martin has im­proved Of­faly. It’s a pos­i­tive for Pat Gil­roy’s team that this game will be played in Par­nell Park as they’ll need ev­ery ad­van­tage that’s go­ing.

One way or the other, the next few weeks is go­ing to be fas­ci­nat­ing.

Cork have flown un­der the radar but they have one big ad­van­tage; the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be a great venue for their sup­port­ers

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