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Pat Spillane: Feast and the famine of GAA fixtures won’t whet too many appetites


Adrian Spillane of Kerry in action against Cork at Páirc Ui Rinn. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Colm Basquel's goal helped Dublin to get off to a winning start to the new season with a win over Wicklow. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Luke Towey of Sligo in action against Jordan Flynn, left, and Cormac Howley of Mayo during the challenge match in Ballina. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

4 January 2023; Senan Baker of Westmeath collides with Conall McKeever of Louth during the O'Byrne Cup Group A Round 1 match between Louth and Westmeath at the Protection & Prosperity Louth GAA Centre of Excellence in Darver, Louth. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

2 January 2023; Mayo manager Kevin McStay during the challenge match between Mayo and Sligo at James Stephen's Park in Ballina, Mayo. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Pat SpillaneSunday World

THE GAA has hit the ground running in the new year.

There were 27 inter-county games in eight different competitions played in the last five days, with 10 more scheduled for today.

But don’t be fooled into believing this glut of games are the first inter-county action since last year’s All-Ireland final.

There were dozens of challenge matches played in December, though the regulations stipulate that none should take place before January 1.

What I cannot fathom is why only Tipperary and Offaly got into hot water for breaching the regulation. Mind you, the token €250 fine imposed on them suggests the GAA didn’t want to open a can of worms.

In the interests of being an informed pundit, I forked out a tenner last Monday to watch Kevin McStay’s first official outing as Mayo boss in a challenge game against Sligo.

I begin with a double health warning. Sligo offered little in terms of resistance and Mayo featured just five of the players who faced Kerry in their last competitive game in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

However, Mayo looked very fit, sharp, hungry and worked so hard. Conor McStay, the manager’s nephew, was particularly lively, though I doubt whether he is ready yet for the demands of senior championship football.

Jack Carney and Jordan Flynn excelled, as did midfielders Matthew Ruane and Diarmuid O’Connor.

According to John Maughan, who was on co-commenting duties, the squad have done savage training for the past month in the Connacht Centre of Excellence. It showed.

It looks like Kevin McStay is taking the same approach in his new role as he did in his first season in charge of Roscommon, when he was joint-manager with Fergal O’Donnell in 2016.

Roscommon’s superior fitness levels saw them hit the ground running in Division 1, and they scored a famous one-point win over Kerry in Killarney. But once the other teams caught up with them in terms of fitness, they were exposed.

Kerry hammered them by 10 points in the league semi-final, and they bowed out tamely to Clare in the All-Ireland qualifiers after Galway thumped them in a replay in the Connacht final.

The underlying message is beware of early-season form.

Luke Towey of Sligo in action against Jordan Flynn, left, and Cormac Howley of Mayo during the challenge match in Ballina. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Mayo’s search for a full-back as well as a replacement for Oisín Mullin continues, and they don’t have a target man up front.

Despite their complete dominance, they created only one goalscoring chance. So, if I were a Mayo fan, I wouldn’t be getting carried away yet.

Meanwhile, there are more pressing issues to address.

Most GAA fans have yet to grasp just how crazy the fixtures schedule is in 2033.

As I have written here before, it’s the GAA’s version of speed dating. Blink – and you are in danger of missing a big chunk of it.

A recent comment by Cork boss John Cleary that the new format may be attritional for inter-county teams could go down as the understatement of the year.

In the 21 weekends between the start of the Allianz League on January 28-29 and the third round of the new round-robin championship series, Cork could be in action on 14 of those weeks if they reach both the Division 2 and Munster finals.

This is the fifth time in seven years the All-Ireland series will be played under a different format.

The new format for both the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup means the number of championship games jumps from 66 to 99, but the season is just one week longer than last year.

At face value, this is good news for both the fans and the players.

Every county is guaranteed a minimum of 11 games – seven in the league and four championship matches (one provincial and three in the round-robin series).

This figure could rise to a maximum of 19 for the Leinster and Ulster teams drawn in the preliminary rounds of their respective provincial championship in the event of them reaching the league and All-Ireland finals.

So there is no shortage of games for the fans – while the games-to-training ratio ought to tumble from the unacceptable high level of 13:1.

Mind you, I’m not so sure about this given the amount of training inter-county players have already done in preparation for the 2023 season.

Don’t forget, most would have been doing individually tailored gym programmes for months.

Don’t be codded either by the notion that all these extra games means everything is rosy in the garden, with all teams now on an equal footing.

The system remains loaded in favour of the elite teams.

For starters, I fear the increase in the number of games will take a huge toll on players in terms of injuries. They simply won’t have sufficient time to recover from even minor knocks.

The stronger counties with bigger panels have an inbuilt advantage already.

Furthermore, Kerry and Dublin, who have won nine of the last 10 All-Ireland titles, are virtually guaranteed to reach their provincial finals – which, in turn, guarantees them a place in the Sam Maguire series.

So, they can tailor their preparations accordingly – and peak at the business end of the season.

Last year, Jack O’Connor fielded the strongest Kerry team he had on call in every match.

This won’t happen this season, as we witnessed on Wednesday night when the All-Ireland champions played a second-string side against Cork in the McGrath Cup.

Colm Basquel's goal helped Dublin to get off to a winning start to the new season with a win over Wicklow. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Meanwhile, Dublin ought to secure promotion from Division 2 without showing their full hand.

Though the Tailteann Cup was a huge success last year, I believe the format needs to change.

The two best teams, Westmeath and Cavan, contested the final. But they are not ‘weaker’ counties, and the competition was not designed for them.

I’m not singling out Westmeath and Cavan. The two counties relegated from Division 2, as well as the top-six counties in Division 3, are not ‘weak’ counties.

The Tailteann Cup ought to be contested by the eight Division 4 teams and the two counties relegated from Division 3, plus New York.

Otherwise, it will be dominated by middle-tier counties and will not benefit those counties who need a boost.

The GAA season really ought to be called the Feast and the Famine.

More than 500 county games are scheduled between now and the end of July, and then we will have absolutely nothing for the next five months.

There are countless booby traps hidden in the new set-up – and if some of them detonate, it will cause consternation.

Take Leitrim, for example. They face a tricky Connacht championship assignment in New York – but if they reach the Division 4 league final, it will be played seven days before their trip to the Big Apple.

Indeed, up to 18 counties could possibly have a provincial championship game a week after contesting a league final.

The new round-robin format could be even more problematic.

For instance, reigning Tailteann Cup champions Westmeath are guaranteed a place in the Sam Maguire series, as is one of Sligo, Leitrim, London and New York, who are all in the same side of the Connacht championship draw. None of this quartet can qualify for Sam via the league.

This means that unless Westmeath reach the Leinster decider, the Division 3 finalists will miss out on playing in the Sam Maguire.

Image the reaction if a county beats Westmeath in the Division 3 league final and still miss out on playing in the Sam Maguire championship.

And that’s not the only potential banana skin.

For example, if Cavan – who will play in Division 3 this season – were to reach the Ulster final, it would almost certainly mean that the county which finishes sixth in Division 2 would miss out on the Sam Maguire championship as well. There could be plenty of trouble ahead.

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