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Opinion: It's time to scrap the irrelevant pre-season GAA competitions

The upcoming pre-season leagues are due to start at the end of December and beginning of January.

THE PRE-SEASON LEAGUES have become a redundant part of the GAA.

Kevin Davis and Killian Young Cork's Kevin Davis and Killian Young of Kerry in action during this year's McGrath Cup. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

Their irrelevance is obvious and the lack of emphasis placed on the matches is made even clearer by the recent withdrawal of Tipperary and Kerry from the McGrath Cup due to its close scheduling behind the Allianz Football League.

The decision has been taken to start the Munster pre-season competition at the end of next month, with the final being scheduled for 21 January.

This means that if the reigning champions Kerry were to make it back to the decider again this season, they would would have just a one-week break before their opening national league game. Understandably, they want to conserve the players’ energy for the latter fixture and will have to skip the McGrath Cup in order to do that.

Additionally, some of the teams who get to the latter stages of the All-Ireland championship tend to go on their holidays at this time of the year, which can complicate their place in the pre-season leagues.

Last year, the majority of Dublin’s first-choice players were unavailable for their opening O’Byrne Cup game against DCU as it clashed with their team holiday in Jamaica. Jim Gavin was also away on that trip which meant that 1995 All-Ireland winner Paul Clarke was required to step in and take charge of an experimental Dublin outfit.

Paul Clarke with Niall Moyna Paul Clarke with DCU manager Niall Moyna after the O'Byrne Cup game between Dublin and DCU earlier this year. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

All-Ireland finalists Mayo experienced a similar situation at the beginning of their FBD League campaign in 2017.

Fourteen players from the side who faced Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland decider were part of a group that went on a 10-day holiday to South Africa, and therefore missed Mayo’s first pre-season game against NUI Galway.

Indeed, these games give aspiring talents from the U21 grade and beyond the opportunity to impress in the absence of the regular starters, but players don’t need to rely on the pre-season leagues exclusively in order to make a plea for a starting jersey.

Those chances to break into the team are still on the table when the National League begins, and managers are usually still trying different formations during those fixtures.

All of these examples amount to a strong sense of disinterest among inter-county teams towards these pre-season leagues. This in turn impositions the fans, and makes it difficult for them to get excited about a competition that is lacking a decent spread of quality players.

Perhaps the lower division teams still value the provincial leagues, and theoretically, the whole purpose of thses leagues is to allow weaker sides to compete for silverware that they have a realistic chance of winning. Even if the National League and championship fails to yield a trophy for them, they can at least reflect on some meaningful success at the end of the year if they pick up a pre-season title.

That, however, doesn’t happen very often.

Leitrim’s FBD triumph in 2013 and 2014 is an example of this and illustrates the potential advantage of keeping these competitions alive, but their achievement is something of an isolated case.

Despite the major losses in personnel, Dublin won this year’s O’Byrne Cup title on the back of a nine-point victory over Louth.  Tyrone are the reigning McKenna Cup champions for the sixth year in-a-row, while Galway defeated Roscommon to win the 2017 FBD League.

Shane Kingston Cork's Shane Kingston during the 2017 Munster Senior League. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Hurling’s heavy hitters are also dominating the pre-season fixtures. Cork were crowned the Co-Op Superstores Munster senior hurling league winners earlier this year, while Kilkenny picked up the Walsh Cup in February.

College teams feature in some of the pre-season leagues as well, but it’s an inconvenient obligation for them as their championship season comes into focus around that time of the year.

The qualification rounds of both the Sigerson Cup and Fitzgibbon Cup commence in January, and participating teams will naturally be focusing their energies on those competitions.

It should be noted however, that college teams do not participate in the McGrath Cup and Connacht based institutions have been excluded from the upcoming FBD League.

The pre-season inter-county leagues offers teams more matches, but it also increases the likelihood of incurring injuries. And since many of the college players are also on inter-county panels, they’re exposed to a higher risk of burnout.

There’s not much material left for a counter-argument to keep these pre-season competitions alive.  Persisting with them is a pointless exercise, and yet, the demand to have these leagues scrapped is still struggling to find a voice among GAA supporters.

Starting the National Leagues earlier is a positive step to take in terms of tackling fixture schedule issues at inter-county level, but progression would be much easier to achieve if the pre-season leagues were erased from the agenda.

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