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gaa changes Congress may choose from three football championship formats

Split season and hurling sin bin also set to get green light when delegates meet

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Dublin’s Dean Rock (left) and Jonny Cooper celebrate at an empty Croke Park. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Dublin’s Dean Rock (left) and Jonny Cooper celebrate at an empty Croke Park. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Dublin’s Dean Rock (left) and Jonny Cooper celebrate at an empty Croke Park. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

It is 57 years since Bob Dylan penned his iconic song 'The Times They Are a-Changin.' Never were his lyrics more relevant.

The post-pandemic world will look a lot different. Even a traditionally conservative organisation like the GAA cannot remain immune to changes.

Indeed, such are the momentous nature of the proposals the Association is considering right now that one is reminded of other famous words - from Vladimir Lenin - "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen."

The 2021 GAA Congress is scheduled for the last weekend in February. Newly-elected President Larry McCarthy will take over from John Horan at what is likely to be the first ever remote GAA Congress.

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A sin bin could be introduced in hurling.

A sin bin could be introduced in hurling.

A sin bin could be introduced in hurling.

It is probable delegates will formally approve the adoption of a 'split season' which worked well last year and will be deployed again in 2021, regardless of what decision is taken at Congress.

The GAA has a habit, however, of taking only one momentous decision at each Congress.

The chances are they will break with tradition next month and adopt a new disciplinary code in hurling.

This will result in the introduction of a much-needed sin bin in hurling as well as the possibility of a penalty being awarded if a player is deliberately denied a goalscoring opportunity due to foul play.

The other high-profile issue which must be determined this year is the proposed reform of the All-Ireland football championship.

The committee in charge of considering this has tweaked their original plan.

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Some Ulster and Leinster teams could join Munster and Connacht

Some Ulster and Leinster teams could join Munster and Connacht

Some Ulster and Leinster teams could join Munster and Connacht

Delegates have three options (a) retain the current format (b) bring in eight-team regional championships and (c) the season to be flipped with the provincial series played as stand-alone competitions in the spring while the Allianz League would be a qualifier competition for a two-tier All-Ireland series.

The issues involved are extremely complex, not least because the Super 8s formula, which originally was to run for a three-year experimental period, wasn't used last year and won't be deployed in 2021 either.

So, if the delegates opt for no change then they must decide whether no change means retaining the Super 8s which has received mixed reviews.

The GAA's Central Council has yet to decide whether the football reform motions will be debated at the February Congress.

They may be kicked down the road to a special Congress later in the year, when it might be possible for delegates to attend in person.

Due to the pandemic, there has been no public debate on the two new options.

Today we examine them in detail and outline the pros and cons of the two new proposals.

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Some Ulster and Leinster teams could join Munster and Connacht

Some Ulster and Leinster teams could join Munster and Connacht

Some Ulster and Leinster teams could join Munster and Connacht

Plan A

Eight-Team Provincial Football championships:

THE key issue is how the provinces will be rebalanced given that Leinster has 11 football counties, Ulster nine, Munster six and Connacht - including London - six. Two options are proposed to resolve this issue.

Option 1: Based on final placings in the Allianz League, the bottom three Leinster teams and bottom Ulster county move to the Munster/Connacht championships.

For example, based on the 2020 league, the four counties to switch would be Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow, and Antrim.

The mechanism to determine which counties move to which province is not spelled out. Common sense would suggest however, that the Ulster team would move to Connacht.

Option 2: A special preliminary round is introduced in the Leinster and Ulster championships.

In Leinster, the bottom six teams - based on league placings - play each other. The winners would continue in the Leinster series with the three losers moving to Munster (2) and Connacht (1). In Ulster, the bottom two placed teams in the league would play off with the losers then switching to Connacht.

The eight-team provincial championships would be played on a round-robin basis, consisting of two groups of four teams. The make-up of the groups would be determined by seeding from the league. Each team would be guaranteed a minimum of three games.

The winners of each group would qualify for the provincial finals and the All-Ireland series. The second- and third-placed teams would go into the qualifiers.

So, 24 teams would compete for the Sam Maguire Cup. Eight provincial finalists and the 16 in the qualifiers.

The fourth-placed team in each group - provided they were a Division 3 or 4 team - would participate in the knockout Tailteann Cup. New York would also be allowed participate in the secondary competition.

The All-Ireland series would then progress along traditional lines with the beaten provincial finalists getting a second chance in the qualifiers while the All-Ireland quarter-finals would feature the provincial winners against the Round three qualifiers winners. The National League would remain unchanged.

Advantages:

This proposal equalises the number of counties in the four provincial championships. Teams are guaranteed a minimum of three championship games and the majority will play at least four.

The latter stages of the All-Ireland will be knock-out - eliminating any possibility of dead rubbers.

Disadvantages:

There is an element of making a mountain out of a molehill in the plan given the angst which moving counties to a different province will cause.

Furthermore, the inclusion of the three weakest teams in Leinster is unlikely to make the Munster series more competitive and the proposal will certainly not impact on Dublin's dominance of the Leinster series.

The number of teams in the second-tier Tailteann Cup could vary if Division 3 or 4 teams don't finish bottom of their group in the provincial series.

Division 1 and 2 teams will not be allowed participate in either the All-Ireland qualifiers or the Tailteann Cup in the unlikely event of them finishing outside the top three in their provincial group.

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Provincial championships might well lose their lustre over time

Provincial championships might well lose their lustre over time

Provincial championships might well lose their lustre over time

Plan B

THIS is a far more radical proposal which would see the All-Ireland series being run like the Champions League in soccer.

Timing-wise the season would be turned on its head with stand-alone, but newly-formatted, provincial championships taking place in February/March followed by the Allianz League and the knockout stages of the All-Ireland series and the new Tailteann Cup.

The provincial championships would be organised on a round-robin basis. In Munster and Connacht, all six participating counties would play in the one group within their province.

In Leinster there would be two groups: one of six teams, the other five while in Ulster the two groups would consist of five and four counties.

Winners

After the round-robin games, the top teams in Connacht and Munster would progress to their provincial finals, with the second- and third-placed sides meeting in the semis. In Leinster and Ulster, the top two teams in each group would meet in semi-finals with the winners going to the finals.

Qualification for the All-Ireland series would be based entirely on how teams performed in the league. The top four teams in Division 1 would qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals along with the top two finishers in Division 2.

The top team in Division 3 and 4 together with the fifth-placed team in Division 1 and the third-placed team in Division 2 advance to the preliminary quarter-finals.

The second-tier Tailteann Cup would include all the teams in Division 3 and 4 apart from the top-placed teams who qualify for the preliminary round of the Sam Maguire championship.

Both championships would run on a straight knockout format with league finals abolished.

Advantages:

This is the type of radical reform the football championship needs.

Finally, the GAA recognises that the National League is the best competition on its books, and elevates it to become a qualifier for the All-Ireland series.

The majority of teams are guaranteed a minimum of five championship games, while all games at the business end of the championship are straight knock-out.

Disadvantages:

There is a significant risk that the importance of the provincial championships will diminish over time with them effectively being downgraded into a pre-season tournament akin to the existing O'Byrne and McKenna Cups.

The financially lucrative - for all counties - Allianz League finals would be lost.

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