Open draw: Have the GAA missed a golden opportunity?

The format for the 2020 All-Ireland Football Championship was unveiled on Friday, with several points of interest.

The two most notable aspects of the announcement were the commitment to a calendar year season, and the retention of the provincial championships in football.

“We didn’t rule anything in or out when we sat down to do the fixtures,” explained Feargal McGill, the GAA’s director of player, club & games administration at Friday’s media briefing, when asked if an ‘open draw’ championship was considered.

“A couple of things though did occur to us while we were doing those, the first thing is if you play the provincial championships in football, you’re going to have four teams with silverware at the end of the year. In hurling, you’re going to have two teams as winners and possibly three if a different team wins an All-Ireland. So that was one of the reasons, you’re going to have five finals and at least four teams with silverware.

“Another reason was, you have to consider, what are you trying to solve in terms of having an open draw? Usually people will tell you, what you’re going to solve is avoiding cannon fodder for the big teams. But an open draw does not solve that, in fact it might add to it. So on balance, we felt the best approach was the provincial championships.”

McGill is right. An open-draw would not eradicate the potential for mismatches. But would it make them more likely than now?

A ‘monster’

In recent weeks, GAA president John Horan conceded the provincial championships have become a ‘monster’. Many found themselves nodding in agreement.

One of the big challenges is to tackle the monster that is the traditional feature of the GAA that is the provincial championships.

Horan feels the format is problematic

There are clear discrepancies associated with the varying standards of the provinces. Dublin and Kerry are chasing their 10th and eighth consecutive titles respectively. Meanwhile Connacht and Ulster produced three different winners each over the last decade. Some have tougher paths to an All-Ireland semi-final than others.

In addition to the differing degrees of difficulty, simple numbers imply inequality. Galway, Sligo, Cork and Kerry will all begin at a semi-final stage in their provincial championships (a two-game path to an All-Ireland semi-final). Compare that with Monaghan, Cavan or any of the six Leinster teams who would need to win four games to claim provincial honours. This is laid bare when there is no back door.

A level playing field?

To borrow an Irish sporting term to paraphrase Horan, perhaps the provincial championships have become the GAA’s ‘problem child’.

Appetite

Last week, a GPA survey reported there was ‘broad support’ among its membership for an open draw championship.

The players are against it. The association’s president is against it. The overarching sense is fans are growing weary of the formats, particularly in Munster and Leinster given the monopolies that have been established.

It begs a question – other than from the provincial councils themselves – just how great is the appetite for them to be retained?

Air of change

The GAA’s Fixture Review Task Force were due to rubber-stamp proposals ahead of Congress later this year.

Of course, the coronavirus response considerably impacted the GAA’s plans, as they plotted for a truncated championship. Emergency powers were bestowed upon the association’s management committee to alter the tournament structures for 2020 as they saw fit.

The way was paved to try something new. Given that change is likely coming down the tracks, there was a golden opportunity to take advantage of the unprecedented situation, and trial a potential solution.

Would anyone lambaste the GAA for getting it wrong having tried something new? In the context of the year that has been, probably not.

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