It’s that time of year of again – well, strictly speaking it’s a bit later than that time of year – when we all acknowledge that what we’ve seen on the hurling and football pitches of the country is subject to the reset button.
One of the greatest tricks GAA people and the media covering Gaelic games manage to pull each year is to spend the national league campaign discussing what a big deal it is, only to then turn around at the end of it and admit that it was only all preparation for the real thing.
We all know this to be the case but there’s a collective wink and a nudge as we wonder if Brian Cody’s job is indeed in danger after two defeats on the trot of if county X “can make a real go of it this year” after beating All-Ireland contenders who started training late and were without eight starters.
On Saturday evening, as Kerry ran in five first-half goals against Tyrone in Killarney, on RTÉ Radio 1 Marty Morrissey and Dessie Dolan were saying it was the closest thing they had seen to the ‘Golden Years’ side of Mick O’Dwyer, better even than the current Dublin side – who, let’s not forget, are aiming for an unprecedented seventh straight All-Ireland title this year.
Given that Tyrone have an Ulster championship clash with Down in a fortnight, it’s fair to suggest that they were not attaching a huge level of significance to the game, which is understandable to the extent, given that winning it would only earn a team the right to call themselves joint-league champions. The loss of young forward Darragh Canavan to injury was of far more import to the Red Hands than defeat on the pitch.
Ultimately, it was Kerry and Dublin who prevailed as the top two sides in Division 1 – hardly earth-shattering news that they hold such status – but the lack of a final in any of the four tiers left an under-nourished feeling in some quarters. Pat Spillane made the point that Kerry lost a game last year and won the league – again with no final – but that, this time around, they had gone unbeaten and ended up with half a trophy. He was obviously skewing the argument to suit his needs as last year’s was a full seven-game campaign and this time around there was only time for four matches, but there is some logic to what he was saying.
Obviously, the fact is that teams don’t want to be playing league matches with championship around the corner – a straight knockout one at that – but why, for example, was the provision not made that a championship meeting between finalists would double up as the league decider? This is the situation in hurling, where a possible Leinster final between Kilkenny and Galway would also have the league trophy up for grabs.
It’s not an ideal situation by any means but it offers some level of clarity. The notion of Kerry meeting Dublin in the All-Ireland final is not fanciful by any means, but then perhaps the decision-makers didn’t want the showpiece occasion to be diluted in any way. That said, we stand to be corrected on this but, if Kilkenny and Galway didn’t meet in Leinster but then did so in the All-Ireland series, that would have the league-final tag attached to it.
But, as we said at the outset, it’s all academic to a degree as the key thing that managers up and down the country were saying after their games at the weekend was we’re back to square one now.
It was best put by Westmeath manager Jack Cooney, who saw his team score 25 points against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but concede 3-22 to result in their relegation to Division 3: “Teams get promoted and relegated every year, we’re just one of the ones to be relegated. We’ll focus in for the next three weeks and get ready to play Laois in Tullamore.”
In terms of entertainment, the weekend ticked a box as so many counties had something to play for, whether in terms of aiming for promotion or battling to avoid relegation, whereas the end of a ‘normal’ league would have quite a few in mid-table limbo and treating their final outing as little more than a challenge match.
The relegations of last year’s provincial champions Cavan and Tipperary to Division 4 for 2022 will raise further concerns as to the wisdom of the introduction of the Tailteann Cup and a tiered All-Ireland, where sides in the lower two divisions would need to reach their provincial final in order to take part in the top grade. On the other hand, Clare, for example, will have taken heart from their ability to give Mayo a stiff test in their Division 2 promotion play-off – losing by four points – having beaten Kildare earlier in the campaign. Unfortunately for Colm Collins’ side, their next match is a Munster quarter-final against Kerry, with no back door available to them if they lose.
The ‘problem’ with having so many matches on is that there is too little time for them all to be covered properly on RTÉ’s League Sunday. Could a Saturday/Sunday split have worked, say Divisions 2 and 4 on Saturday and 1 and 3 on Sunday? It’s probably not something that will have to considered again as the ‘normal’ league should be back from next year.
Despite the step down in prestige from the championship, the one thing the league does offer is a truly fair test for counties against opponents of a similar level and the idea has been expressed more than once that this system operating as the championship would be the optimal scenario.
Later this year, the format for the 2022 championship will be decided and it will be interesting to see if this is a runner.