No doubt a few people reading this will have had A Season of Sundays stuffed into Christmas stockings.

Since 1999, the annual pictorial review of the GAA season from Sportsfile has been a staple among my gifts and I’ve been lucky enough to feature twice (in the press box), in the 2008 and 2016 editions (I’m looking to another inclusion in 2024).

While the camera roll throws up many familiar images of Croke Park at the business end of the campaign – I nearly said “Croke Park in September” but of course we’re now talking about July – it is often the early part of the year that provides the interesting vignettes.

These pictures tend to be more towards the human-interest side of things, like a referee and his umpires enjoying a cup of tea after a game played in the freezing cold or a parent ensuring that their son or daughter is sufficiently wrapped up against the biting wind.

They show that it is a year-long season and give an insight into the behind-the-scenes stuff that the vast majority may not be aware of.

Of course, that should not give the impression that the front-of-house stuff is meaningless – far from it.

While the Co-op SuperStores Munster Hurling League or FBD League or McKenna Cup won’t be paraded around the primary schools of the winning counties or bring cause for bonfires as the team returns home, they serve a key purpose for those involved.

League opener

This Thursday night, for instance, Pat Ryan’s first proper match as Cork hurling manager sees the Rebels travel to Austin Stack Park in Tralee for their Munster league opener against Kerry.

For the Rebels, it’s a case of being expected to win while also being in a no-win situation – a big victory will surprise nobody; a narrow victory will give some panic-merchants cause for concern; and defeat will have the sky collapsing in some quarters.

Whatever the case, the game will have provided Ryan and his management with a chance to look at players who are pushing to make their mark in 2023. Do well in the pre-season competitions and you are looked at in the Allianz Hurling League – do well there and you’re in the mix for the championship. It’s the perfect staged development.

For Kerry, seeking to go one better in the Joe McDonagh Cup after the epic final defeat to Antrim last year, it’s a chance to sharpen up against one of the big boys – not that they’ll be overawed, having beaten Tipperary in the quarter-finals of last year’s competition, which was run on a straight knockout basis.

And the hardy souls in the stand, glad to have the “chance to get out of the house” after a few weeks of lounging on the couch, watching films and throwing back the chocolates?

Come the summer, when one of the “bolters” is making a name for themselves in Thurles or Croke Park, they can say that they got in on the ground floor, that they knew there was something special afoot when they lit up a cold night.

Return of the Champions Cup

After the Christmas and new year derby fixtures, there is one more round of United Rugby Championship (URC) action before the Heineken Champions Cup returns next weekend.

The festive interprovincial games always tend to draw the crowds and it was no surprise to see a near-full Thomond Park for the Munster-Leinster game, where the visitors produced an impressive comeback.

Given that both Graham Rowntree and Leo Cullen have spoken in favour of such a game taking place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and the Munster-South Africa game there having gone so well, it’s surely likely that their next clash down south will take place by the banks of the Lee.

Hosting a big URC match would be the next step towards having a major European fixture there and surely any Munster fan would find that preferable to having to travel up the M7 and M8 for a “home” match at the Aviva Stadium.

Looking at the average attendance figures for the competition so far this season is interesting. Unsurprisingly, given their population base and on-field success, Leinster top the charts with an average of 20,651 and the highest for a single game, 45,436 against Munster at the Aviva back in October.

Given that professional rugby is still relatively young, not 30 years old, for an Irish team to have that level of regular support shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Munster (15,260) and Ulster (14,053) are fourth and fifth respectively, with South African sides the Stormers and the Sharks breaking up the Irish dominance.

Edinburgh are sixth with another South African side, the Bulls, in seventh, leaving eighth-placed Cardiff as the best-supported Welsh team. Their average is 7,532 with a high of a capacity 12,125 for the New Year’s Day clash with the Ospreys.

The figures could be classed as worrying in one sense, as one could argue that Wales has a stronger rugby tradition than Ireland, or at least more areas where rugby rules the roost.

In terms of the viability of the URC as a competition encompassing disparate states, it’s important to have a sense that it is supported from all quarters but then Welsh performance hasn’t been affected too badly – Ireland has 13 wins with Wales next with six outright victories whereas Glasgow Warriors’ 2014-15 triumph was the only time Scotland came out on top.

In addition, the relative lack of crowds for the Welsh teams’ games in the URC is offset somewhat by the strength of the domestic Indigo Group Premiership, which is showing a major resurgence.


By contrast, the growing popularity of professional rugby as a spectator sport in Ireland has come at the expense of the All-Ireland League (AIL), which was very popular from its inception in 1990 until the mid-2000s, since when there has been a worrying fall-off.

It’s a different debate and one for another day, but those AIL clubs which provide nurseries for young players then lose them at schools level and are not guaranteed to have them back as adults, so they are hit on all sides, especially as the players contracted to provinces hardly ever line out with their clubs, as happened in the early days of professionalism.

Things are in rude health in general for rugby in Ireland, but it’s important that the grassroots are not forgotten.