League quarter-final u-turn will add more pressure on fixtures
When it looked as if G.A.A. clubs were about to find some space given the stance taken by Croke Park in having April designated free of inter-county activity, the Central Council decision to have the league quarter-finals restored has come as a major 'u-turn'.
When the new format for the hurling championship was being pushed through at Special Congress, it contained the proviso there would be no quarter-finals in the hurling league.
It was also decided that there would no league football finals in the lower divisions, but this has all now changed, leaving counties with extra games, and players set to be given little opportunity to prepare with their clubs for initial championship games.
Now the question being asked is will the move to April for club championships remain, as even at this early stage many counties are planning around an even later start to club activity. It seems that April can no longer be guaranteed as a designated free month for club championship games.
Wexford are believed to have kicked the decision regarding April for commencement of the club championships back to the C.C.C.C.
But with the hurling league now containing quarter-finals, of which Wexford would hope to be part of, and with May packed for provincial hurling and football championships, the demands being placed on the players would now seem to make it impracticable to have April a designated club month.
The G.A.A. at national level are facing a hurling fixtures pile-up and a significant player welfare issue early in 2018 after the decision was taken to stick with the Allianz Division 1 quarter-finals.
Central Council have chosen not to accept the recommentation of the Central Competitions Control Committee's (C.C.C.C.) to axe them, with the latter body of the opinion that it would free up another weekend for clubs or at least provide counties with a breather in an already hectic schedule.
The games involving the top four in Division 1A and 1B will take place on March 11, meaning there will be no break weekend between the third round of the competition on February 17/18 and the final. The two teams who make the decider must play six games in as many weeks.
Beginning on the weekend of January 28 and concluding on Saturday, March 24, there is only one break weekend now arranged, February 11, in the top flight, meaning eight game weekends out of nine.
The semi-finals are now scheduled to take place on March 18, part of a busy weekend for the G.A.A. with round six of the Allianz Football League being played the same day, and the AIB All-Ireland Club finals taking place 24 hours earlier.
The C.C.C.C. had proposed the structure return to a variation of what existed in 2012 and '13 when the knockout stages comprised semi-finals, involving the top three in Division 1A and the Division 1B final winners, and a final. They had hoped that Central Council would see favour in semi-finals between the top three in Division 1A along with the team that finished at the peak of Division 1B after the five rounds.
It had been speculated by some observers that the changes to the provincial championship structure next year would compel managers into revising their strategies for the league and use it as a more development-based competition.
However, there is now the carrot of a trip to Australia in twelve months time for the 2018 Division 1 champions, as the winners will face All-Ireland champions Galway in an exhibition game in Sydney. Yet the intense run of matches is now sure to stretch all panels while it is likely to further favour Division 1B teams, with the last three champions coming from this division.
The quarter-finals have largely been maligned since they were introduced in 2014 following the relegation of Cork to Division 1B, and it had been felt that five round matches was sufficient.
In 2018, all but one part of hurling's Senior inter-county league and championship action will be confined to five months, February, March, May, June and July. The All-Ireland final is the only match in the season that will be played in August.
With Wexford deciding that no championship games be played on All-Ireland final Sundays in August, and with a decision still to be taken on an April club championship start, it will be interesting to see where the club fits into all of this.