How nice it would be to live in precedented times.
The “year like no other” that was 2020 is being followed by one that bears a lot of similar hallmarks to its predecessor, while still managing to bring its own uniqueness to the table.
It was hoped that there would be some semblance of normality when the GAA expressed the hope that the national leagues could commence in February, with a championship going from May until the middle or the end of July, but somebody somewhere dropped the ball in terms of making sure that the same “elite sport” dispensation that operated in 2020 was still applicable to the association in 2021.
It did not – or at least it didn’t automatically carry over – and so we’ve had to wait until now for some on-field action. While the four-and-a-half month gap from the All-Ireland final to the start of the league is actually closer to what we usually have in a regular year, there would be provincial club and third-level action to fill the gap, but instead we had nothing.
With all of the videos of old matches having been watched in Lockdown 1, there was little else other than Laochra Gael to tide us over. While the worthy exploits of Briege Corkery, Liam Sheedy, Bernard Flynn and Shane ‘Cake’ Curran were entertaining, there is obviously no substitute for the real thing.
Of course, this weekend is the Allianz Hurling League and the league often has the words “only the” preceding it. Still, half a loaf is better than no bread. In any case, it could be a far more meaningful league than usual, given the compacted timeframe.
Usually, there isn’t too much heed paid to the results – unless a big side loses three on the trot, in which case the crisis talk is wheeled out. But this time, sides will have a packed schedule, with five league games played off in six weekends up to the middle of June, ready for a turnaround to face into the championship at the beginning of July.
In such a landscape, it would be difficult if not impossible for teams with poor leagues behind them to find any kind of form for the real thing. Even with such a big gap in the 2020 season, league form was borne out as Limerick and Waterford were two of the better spring performers. Anybody who hadn’t been faring well in the league was simply not left with sufficient time to tune up in the brief training window before the start of the championship.
Theoretically, everybody is starting from the same point this time around, though of course Limerick are up on the pedestal for everybody else to knock them down.
For any sides with designs on being in Croke Park come the business-end of things, a good league showing would appear to be far more important than previously.
Previewing the La Rochelle-Leinster Heineken Champions Cup semi-final last week, former Munster and Ireland player Mick O’Driscoll gave his former teammate Ronan O’Gara a fighting chance of victory, even allowing for the strength of the opposition.
The opening 10 minutes seemed to indicate that the experience of Leinster would win the day and give La Rochelle – playing just their 18th game in the continent’s top competition – something to work on. Instead, they kept their composure and made it to half-time just a point down before turning things around in the second half.
They will face an even bigger task in the final against Toulouse, another example of European rugby royalty, but you’d imagine that O’Gara won’t be fazed by it and neither will his team.
With La Rochelle director of rugby Jono Gibbes moving to Clermont Auvergne for next season, O’Gara steps up to the top job and he could be doing so as a European champion. It would be a great achievement but, from a Munster point of view, might it be something of concern.
The hope has been that O’Gara will one day be guiding his home province’s fortunes but, all things being equal, it’s unlikely that Munster could attract a Champions Cup-winning coach right now.
Obviously, there are emotional factors at play and they are substantial but, given O’Gara’s trajectory, might a move to Munster be seen as a step backwards, if and when the opportunity arises?
Previously in these pages, Mary O’Connor (the chief executive of the Irish Federation of Sport and a former Cork dual player), has expressed the hope that coverage of women’s sports can go beyond mere “scoreboard journalism”.
Essentially, there’s a sense that the attention given can be a bit condescending – “Aren’t they all great girls?” – and the sports will never properly progress unless a critical, but fair, eye can be applied.
It’s a worthy ideal, certainly, but it’s not helped by the fact that the governing bodies of camogie and ladies’ football often bring negative attention on themselves, unprovoked.
Back in 2015, there was the proposed coin-toss to determine whether Clare or Dublin would advance to the All-Ireland camogie quarter-finals, there have been numerous dual-player fixture-clashes and last December brought the fiasco of the All-Ireland ladies’ football semi between Cork and Galway undergoing three venue changes, one on the day of the game.
This is not to say that there are never any administrative issues on the men’s side – they happen far too often too, but tend to be overshadowed by the games, which draw enough attention in and of themselves.
It’s the harsh truth that sports looking to progress upwards have to be seen to be performing strongly on and off the field in order to gain serious acceptance and last week’s camogie scheduling controversy was the latest mark against that.
Despite the fact that 82% of players had indicated a preference for a split-season, a fixture plan was published whereby the inter-county league and championship would be sandwiching the club championship season.
Thankfully, the Gaelic Players’ Association was able to represent its members’ wishes and the weight of that voice ensured a rethink. But it’s something that could have been easily avoided – we can say that we hope such an issue doesn’t arise again, but who would be confident in that being the case?