Week by week, season by season, the evidence mounts: the time has come for the GAA to finally scrap the provincial system at senior level.
We had another weekend of lopsided results in hurling and football, shrinking crowds and diminishing interest. None of this should come as a surprise – it happens every year in the first portion of the season, when the provincial championships are played.
The rot set in long ago, but the wheels of change in the GAA move slowly.
Round-robin groups were introduced to the small ball game last year and the talk has finally moved to a tiered structure in the big ball game.
"How’s that fair? The answer is that it’s not and it’s a situation that will create a small number of yo-yo teams in hurling"
Both of these moves though are designed to protect and preserve the provincial competition structures when what’s needed is to abandon them altogether.
The provincial system was established more than 100 years ago in times when travel and communications were far more difficult than they are now and those structures served the Association well.
There’s a strong argument for retaining the provinces for underage and club competitions, to keep travelling to the minimum because midweek matches are more common. That’s about it though.
Let’s take a roll-call – the Leinster and the Munster football championships are wastelands. Kerry are going to win their eighth in nine season in a few weeks time, Dublin will make it 13 out of 14 against Meath.
Leinster has 12 teams and one of those played Division 1 football this year, the Dubs. They won’t have to beat a top flight team before they get to the All-Ireland quarter-final stage. Elsewhere, Roscommon would have to beat two to reach the Super 8s directly.
Connacht has six teams, including London, plus New York who have never won a game in the province, and three of those are in Division 1.
However, given the lopsided nature of the draw, Sligo got a bye into the semi-final and, on losing that to Galway they go straight into round two of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
Louth, in the same Division 3 as Sligo, beat Wexford, could have pulled off the surprise of the season and beat Dublin and then lost to Kildare in the Leinster semi-final (clearly this is a hypothetical situation) and found themselves at the exact same stage of the qualifiers as the Yeats County.
Ulster is the strongest province with six teams from the top two divisions, three from each, and it has lived up to that billing as the most entertaining province, hurling or football, so far in 2019.
And then there’s hurling. Organising the two provinces as round robin groups was a quantum leap forward for Croke Park, a break with 130 years of tradition and it has certainly helped to reinvigorate the game.
However, this year cracks have already begun to show, particularly in Munster. In the eight games so far down south, with two more remaining to be played this weekend, the average winning margin has been 12 points. Only one game ended with less than two scores between the sides.
Leinster has been competitive and four of the five teams go into the final round with a chance of qualifying for the knock-out stages and their destiny in their own hands.
However, the fifth team is the elephant in the room. Carlow were promoted as the first Joe McDonagh Cup champions last year and, as expected, go straight back down with four defeats from four and a negative scoring difference of 47 points.
In Munster, Waterford lost all four games and their scoring difference was minus 52, but they live in a consequence-free environment unless an unlikely series of results sees Kerry qualify for the McDonagh Cup final and then win it.
There’s automatic promotion and relegation between Leinster and the Joe McDonagh if the winner is from Leinster or is Antrim. If Kerry win it, they’d have to go into a play-off with the bottom team from Munster.
How’s that fair? The answer is that it’s not and it’s a situation that will create a small number of yo-yo teams, probably Carlow, Westmeath and Laois, that will bounce between the two competitions, not spending more than a year in the top tier.
At the other end of the table, three teams qualify for the All-Ireland series through their province. The top two go into the provincial final with the winner going through to the semi-final, the loser to the quarter-final and the third place team taking on a Joe McDonagh finalist in a preliminary quarter-final.
There’s an argument for saying that the best place to finish is in third – it certainly worked for Limerick in 2018. It gives a regular spread of games if the team progresses and avoids the hype, and any potentially damaging fall-out from defeat, of a provincial final.
What hurling needs is two groups of six teams mixed between Leinster and Munster similar to what we now have in the Allianz League with a relegation play-off, one team up and one team down giving the promoted side a chance to consolidate and develop. This would, of course, impact on the future of the League.
Football desperately needs a multi-tiered system and a complete break from the provinces.
This isn’t going to happen any time soon though, as the provinces hold a lot of sway and they aren’t about to vote themselves out of business.