Home GAA Opinion: Revamped Provincial Championships Can Still Retain Their Relevance

Opinion: Revamped Provincial Championships Can Still Retain Their Relevance

During a routine radio interview on Off the Ball last August, Kilkenny hurler Richie Hogan made the stunning declaration that he “hated” the championship structure. The show’s presenter Joe Molloy pressed him on his reasons and they are difficult to disagree with.

When Kilkenny win a Leinster final they have a five-week break from games. They only have to play four games to win an All-Ireland; training is relentless, while games are few. Hogan cited the fact that he is motivated in a sporting sense by testing himself as an athlete and not necessarily by “winning things”.

While the Cats are unlikely to get much sympathy from other counties, it should be surprising to hear a player question a system that has brought him so much success. It isn’t that unexpected however, as every GAA fan with a clear mind can see that the provincial structure in hurling and football is broken.

Leinster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Final, Croke Park, Dublin 3/7/2016 Kilkenny vs Galway Kilkenny's Richie Hogan Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Having defeated Waterford in this year’s Munster hurling final, Tipperary now face into a five-week wait that historically has proven difficult to manage. Sean Moran, GAA columnist with The Irish Times, noted that in the fifteen years of the ‘qualifiers’ era, the Munster champions of each campaign captured the All-Ireland title on only one occasion.

Despite the undoubted importance of the Munster championship, it is danger of becoming the very definition of a poisoned chalice. Of those fifteen Munster title winners, only four have won the championship match played immediately after the provincial final.

The Ulster final is often given as evidence to defend the provincial structure in football, yet every year it appears that the winners may have invested too much in it. In recent years, Monaghan have seemed exhausted by the time they hit Croke Park while Mickey Harte has become an expert navigator of the ‘back door’ in capturing Tyrone’s All-Ireland titles.

Mickey Harte has founded another Tyrone side who look to be exciting prospects.

The fading argument that a developing county can aim for a provincial title as a realistic goal does not stack up either. It is easy to accuse sports fans of being hopeless romantics who always believe that there is a chance; less so the bookies.

Once Galway and Tipperary had qualified for the Connacht and Munster finals, and Cavan and Meath had played their way to the provincial semi-finals, a €5 accumulator placed with Paddy Power for each to win their respective championships would have yielded €8,420. The real farce is that these odds are an accurate assessment of the situation.

Developing or so-called weaker counties have less chance of winning a provincial title in the opening half of this decade than in any of the last fifty years. The table below displays the different number of counties that have captured provincial titles in the first five years of each decade since the 1970s.

1971 – 1975 1981 – 1985 1991 – 1995 2001 – 2005 2011 – 2015
11 11 14 9 6

Munster GAA Senior Football Championship Final, Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, Co. Kerry 3/7/2016 Kerry vs Tipperary An Taoiseach Enda Kenny congratulates Kerry captain Bryan Sheehan Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

The twenty provincial titles that were awarded from 2011 to 2015 were taken by just six counties. During the era of ultra-competitive provincial championships contested between 1991 and 1995, fourteen different counties emerged victorious from twenty finals. This represents a drop of 57% in different counties winning provincial titles in twenty years.

As recently as 2008, the official attendance of the Leinster final was close to a sell out at over 80,000 spectators. As Dublin aim for an eleventh title in twelve years against Westmeath on Sunday, the attendance is likely to be around half that number. It is clear that the ‘floating voters’ of the Irish sporting public are no longer prepared to pay good money to watch a foregone conclusion play out.

Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny 4/6/2016 Dublin vs Laois Dublin team huddle Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

It is also becoming increasingly difficult for managers in developing counties to entice the best players to commit to county squads, as highlighted by many in the media in recent years. This situation is understandable from a player’s point of view.

The level of commitment required to train to inter-county standard deserves more respect than the current structure affords. The promise of two or three games during the summer with a four-week hiatus in between or a positive result followed by an uneven pairing and a twenty-point drubbing is not going to entice ambitious young men to put their lives on hold.

Provincial finals are being devalued each year that they remain part of the All-Ireland championship structure. They are an integral part of the GAA and need to be safeguarded for the future.

Connacht GAA Senior Football Championship Final, Pearse Stadium, Galway 10/7/2016 Galway vs Roscommon Roscommon’s Conor Devaney and Sean Purcell with Gary Sice of Galway Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

As a springboard to the summer, a provincial championship makes perfect sense. The expense of sending large squads to every part of the country to honour fixtures that yield little financial return during the National League is significant.

Travel costs would be lower for players and supporters if the provincial championships were played earlier in the year. This could also lead to a bounce in the numbers paying in as attendances in national league fixtures have generally spiked when neighbouring counties play one another.

Local rivalries are fiercely contested in Ireland and a provincial title would mean no less to a developing county if it were captured in early May. They might just stand a chance of catching someone ‘on the hop’ and actually winning one.

Ciaran Priestley, Pundit Arena

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