Tail now wagging the dog, and clubs are likely to suffer
It seems like only a few weeks since the G.A.A. season finished, but thanks to the early season competitions that are dreaded by some and lauded by others, everything is back in full swing already.
If you feel a bit jaded already, imagine what it is like to be an inter-county player, most of whom are back in training since November. The new calendar for county teams, supposedly introduced to improve the lot of the club player, will be severely tested in its maiden year.
The hurling and football leagues are starting earlier (this coming weekend), they will be condensed over a shorter period, and counties will have the majority of their games completed before the end of February in the worst conditions for players and spectators.
College games will add to the workload for a lot of the talented younger players, and their respective competitions are as competitive as any inter-county games.
The league is very important to county teams at this stage of the year. A small amount of blooding new players takes place, but the real value is in trying out tactics and testing players' abilities and reactions in pressurised situations.
Look at how valuable the league was to Wexford hurlers last year and in particular the character-building wins in Galway and Kilkenny. The team has grown in stature and confidence as a result of those performances. Some county teams who might never win a championship game will pick up points in the league so it is the most important competition to them. Promotion is a realistic target with the reward of playing at a higher level justifying the effort.
This year the recovery period between games has been reduced so the value of a strong panel will be important if teams are to progress, and that is where the weaker counties will suffer.
I like the league competitions and we have been treated to some great games over the years in both codes, but I think it is being devalued by the changes even though they seem to be small ones. I wonder how pleased the league sponsors are with the changes, it is like a case of let's get this thing out of the way before the real stuff starts.
The championship changes will bring even more pressure on county players. The Super 8s in football will be a good money-earner but were overwhelmingly opposed by both the Club Players' Association and the GPA, the people that will be most affected by the changes.
The changes to the hurling championship were not emphatically voted in either, with 62% in favour of getting them through. Again it will create exciting games and big attendances, but taking into account the workload being placed upon county players, I can anticipate problems for the clubs.
Take, for example, the plight of the county player who plays hurling and football with his club, and despite what some people would have you believe there are lots of them around the country.
The football league ends on March 25, so the player is free to play in April with his club. In most cases he will have four championship games on four consecutive weekends during this month. The inter-county championships will follow almost immediately.
How many players will be under pressure from their county managers to reduce their workload? How many will be encouraged to play one code and not the other? How many will be told your club has no hope anyway so why risk injury after all the work you have put in?
We can't really blame managers because at the end of the day their job is to prepare teams to the best of their ability, and their reputations are at stake. Yet again the onus and the pressure are put back on the players.
Everyone agrees in theory that the club is the most important thing in the G.A.A., but now in practice commercial interests are the driving forces in the association. The tail is now wagging the dog and we have an interesting season ahead.