Gaelic GamesThe Weekend That Was

Provincial championships must be reimagined as pre-season competitions

The provincial championships are uneven, unequal, unseeded and fashioned in part by the luck of the draw

In the middle of February, after week three of the Allianz Football League, the problem, clearly, is the provincial football championships: where they sit in the calendar, how they impact on the line-up for the Sam Maguire and the Tailteann Cup, and how the league is being undermined by wild cards assigned to the provincial football championships.

Remember the rules? Any team that reaches a provincial final wins a golden ticket to the round-robin stage of the Sam Maguire Cup, regardless of their finishing position in the league, or which division they inhabit. So, take a look at Division Two, where Kildare and Cork sit at the foot of the table with no points from three matches.

Unless Cork can somehow haul themselves into mid-table (third from bottom, or even fourth from bottom, might not be good enough) they are facing the prospect of a summer in the Tailteann Cup. On their side of the Munster championship draw they must beat Kerry to reach the final. Cork gave them an unexpectedly good rattle last summer, but if Cork overcome Limerick they will be meeting Kerry in Killarney, where they haven’t won for 29 years.

On the other hand, there are no Division One teams in Kildare’s half of the Leinster draw and only one Division Two team – Louth. Kildare have turned into such a basket case that you couldn’t count on them to safely navigate that path to the Leinster final, but as things stand it probably represents a better bet than qualifying for the Sam Maguire Cup through their league performance.


And that’s where the trouble lies. The league is a simple, unvarnished meritocracy, from top to bottom; the provincial championships are uneven, unequal, unseeded and fashioned in part by the luck of the draw. Do we want the best teams in the Sam Maguire Cup? Yes. And yet we still allow the provincial championships to queer the pitch.

Compare Kildare’s circumstances to Cavan and Fermanagh. Cavan have made a terrific start to the season, and until they took a hiding from Donegal at the weekend, Fermanagh had too. But if their results were to take a turn for the worst in the coming weeks, where is their safety net?

To reach an Ulster final Cavan would have to beat Monaghan in the preliminary round, Tyrone in the quarter-final and either Derry or Donegal in the semi-final. That works out at three Division One teams and one of the strongest teams in Division Two on their side of the draw. Stack that up against Kildare.

Fermanagh are on the softer side of the draw, but their quarter-final is against Armagh – beaten on penalties in the Ulster final last year and top of Division Two now. Armagh annihilated Kildare by 14 points on Sunday, but Kildare don’t have to worry about a team of that quality in their half of the Leinster draw.

Fermanagh have already beaten Kildare in this year’s league and drawn with Meath – who are guaranteed a place in this year’s Sam Maguire as winners of last year’s Tailteann Cup. Meath are not out of relegation trouble yet and it is not inconceivable that Fermanagh could finish above both Kildare and Meath in Division Two, and not eke out a place in the Sam Maguire Cup. Finishing just outside the relegation places might not be enough. Does that sound fair?

At central level in the GAA there is no stomach for eliminating the provincial football championships, regardless of how uninteresting or anachronistic they have become. The reality is that, in the current system, there are too many matches of greater importance coming down the track for the provincial championships to matter like they did once did.

For the top teams the provincial championships have become a scheduling nuisance. Is Ulster still the exception to that? For now that may still be the case, but let’s see as the new system beds down. Do you think Jim McGuinness would waste anything on an Ulster campaign if he thought it would cost his team in Croke Park? It might not be long before ducking out in Ulster will become the cute thing to do.

Every team with ambitions is working back from the quarter-final weekend. The new Sam Maguire round-robin groups were so competitive last year that getting to that stage wasn’t simple. In that context, dwelling on the provincial championships for any of the good teams was clearly pointless and worthless.

Making a direct link between league performance and championship status has added layers of intrigue and jeopardy to the early weeks of the season. Organically, the league had grown in status over the last 20 years anyway and the correlation between a strong performance in the spring and a long run in the summer had become harder to ignore.

But once the decision was made to stratify the championship, weld that process to league performance, introduce a late-season round-robin format, and try to manage all of that in a compressed calendar, a different, radical, practical view needed to be taken of the provincial championships.

For a start, they must be reimagined as pre-season competitions, played around now, and that means delaying the start of the league. Their Sam Maguire qualification privileges must be stripped back to provincial winners only. The GAA must acknowledge that the GAA public is far more interested in an equitable, consequential league than the vast majority of the provincial championship matches that will be shoehorned into April.

The new championship system has a lot of potential, but for a team like Kildare to bomb out in the league and maybe sneak back into the Sam Maguire through a kind provincial draw is simply ridiculous. The league is too vibrant and too important now; the provincial championships must be put in their place.

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