GAA Championship 2022: What? Already???

by | Apr 15, 2022

By the time the school summer holidays are in full swing, the All-Ireland inter-county Hurling and Gaelic Football championships will be over. Traditionally height-of-summer tournaments begin this year before Jesus rises from the dead. And finals traditionally held on September Sundays will now be on July ones.

It is unclear if this is good, although the thinking behind it is. When I were a lad, my interest in ‘Gaelic Games’ began because school holidays to my folks’ birthplace in the West of Ireland coincided with All-Ireland semi-finals. Today’s second-generation Irish kids will be denied this. But “I were a lad” in 1976, when All-Ireland semi-finals, on August Sundays, were the only live games on Irish telly (RTE), then in its own teenage years. Now, nearly every Championship match has a camera pointed at it. Today’s second-generation can watch them on the GAA GO website. So the GAA can have other priorities.

The early Championship is the main impact of the new ‘split’ GAA season, with clubs now treated like the GAA’s ‘lifeblood’ and ‘backbone,’ an idea to which association leaders have paid mere lip-service in the past. The inter-county season has expanded hugely this century, as the GAA has put broadcast revenue above its roots as a participatory body. And county teams now resemble clubs, leaving actual clubs without top players and/or having to run entire competitions around inter-county commitments.

The ’split’ season means inter-county games from late January to late July, with clubs the focus for the other six months. This has wiped out some old traditions. The phrase “Cork bet and the hay saved” used to be Tipperary hurling’s definition of a successful summer, when the Munster hurling championship was a June affair. And even a townie like me knows that May is a bit early for the hay. But the main contemporary wipe-out is the gap between the National League and Championship, which has had intended and unintended consequences, good and bad.

Championship has always had competitive primacy. But while the recent National Football League was a competitive corker, the National Hurling League felt more like a pre-season event than ever before..

Limerick won the 2020 and 2021 All-Ireland hurling titles. And they didn’t pull up any trees in last year’s league, before elevating forests in the Championship. On 2022 league form, though, pulling up WEEDS might have been a struggle. If they used the league to experiment with tactics and personnel before finalising both in time for Championship, they disguised it so well that they had to win their last match to avoid relegation.

Waterford, Limerick’s cannon-fodder in 2020’s All-Ireland Final, beat Cork, Limerick’s cannon-fodder in 2021, in the league final. And Waterford were so good in the final and in their 19-point semi-final evisceration of Wexford that they are now thought championship contenders, although RTE pundit Derek McGrath “scoffed” at that idea. “Contenders?” he told the ‘RTE Podcast.’ “We are the team to beat. Whoever beats Waterford will be going up the steps” to collect the All-Ireland silverware, the Liam McCarthy Cup. Mind you, when Waterford last won the league, in 2016, their manager was…Derek McGrath. So, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

After two “Covid” years of knock-out competitions, Munster and Leinster provincial hurling reverts to the round-robin format which produced so much excitement in 2018 and 2019, especially 2018 in Munster. Historically, Munster matches have mostly been big matches. So, when everyone plays everyone else, excitement is expected.

Waterford open the 2022 event against Tipperary in Waterford’s Walsh Park at 2pm on Sunday, six weeks after trimming them by ten points in the league at the same venue. And last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Limerick and Cork, meet two hours later in Cork. League form suggests a Cork win, as only Cork HAD any. They blitzed Limerick in Limerick, having led by 14 points at half-time. But if that happens on Sunday, it will still be a shock.

Leinster has only had one All-Ireland finalist, Kilkenny in 2019, in the last three years. The last five, if you discount Galway, who are in Leinster hurling as the others in their province, Connacht, are not top-level hurling counties. Unlike Munster, one Leinster team is annually relegated. And Laois and Westmeath are this year’s VERY likely candidates. On Saturday, Galway host Wexford (live on Sky Sports Arena, throw-in 4.30pm), which should be close. Westmeath hosting Kilkenny shouldn’t be. Dublin hosting Laois could be.

The top two in each province meet in the provincial finals. The provinces’ third-placed teams meet the top two in the second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup in two ‘preliminary’ quarter-finals. Those two winners meet the losing provincial finalists in two quarter-finals, the winners of which say hello again to the provincial champions in the All-Ireland semis. And if you think THAT’S complex…seriously…check out next year’s football set-up…and pass the paracetamol.

As for “Liam’s” destination? Could genuinely be at least six counties…unless Limerick return to form. In which case, God help EVERYONE else.

Football has a nationwide competitive landscape, even if only Ulster has provided consistently competitive provincial action in recent years. And football’s championship structures are changing radically over this year and next. Next year’s format…hurts my head just thinking about it. But the process began with this year’s league, although Division One was unaffected and was insanely competitive on its own merits.

Only the teams which finished the league in Divisions One and Two, after promotion and relegation, have automatically qualified to play for 2022’s All-Ireland Championship silverware, the Sam Maguire Cup. The others will take part in the parallel-running Tailteann Cup, unless they become provincial finalists. Thus, the bottom of Division Two garnered considerable media attention.

Down always looked like nominative determinists. And the battle against the other relegation spot was a three-way. Offaly, as 2021 division three promotees, were expected candidates. Cork and Meath weren’t. Meath produced two late wins. So, Offaly’s last-day hosting of Cork resembled a scheduling master-stroke. Cracking game, too, with Cork landing two stoppage-time points to save themselves, especially with the provincial final route looking closed, as they face unbackable favourites Kerry in a Munster’s semi-final with a special side-story…upon which I will elucidate nearer the time.

Current form makes Kerry national favourites too. Although that’s been said lots in recent, title-less years. Kerry hammered an insipid Mayo in the Division One final. But the big story was in the division’s drop-zone. At one stage on the final afternoon, most of the division was on seven points, with Kerry leading and…eeek…DUBLIN, All-Ireland champions for a record six times in-a-row up to 2020, bottom. And the Monaghan/Dublin match soon became THE focus, Dublin needing a draw to relegate their hosts.

Monaghan led almost throughout. But Dublin levelled with a stoppage-time penalty. Then, with seconds left, Monaghan won a free, 45 metres out. Keeper Rory Beggan and legendary forward Conor McManus have penchants for such kicks. But two-goal Jack McCarron, cool-as-****, grabbed the ball and pinged it between the posts…relegating Dublin on the spot.

Few expect Monaghan to outlast Dublin come Championship, though. Dublin improved after losing their first four league games, including a one-point loss in Kildare, their likeliest Leinster challengers. But their return to the pack has added welcome uncertainty to “Sam’s” destination. All-Ireland champions Tyrone stank the league out too, although they began training late, after the team holiday they got for BEING champions. They open Ulster’s championship in Fermanagh on Saturday, live on Sky Sports Arena, 6.30pm. Armagh, Donegal and Derry (desperately unlucky not to win promotion from Division Two) are genuine challengers.

Mayo/Galway is Connacht’s ‘title-decider,’ despite being a quarter-final. But my team, Roscommon, the beneficiaries of Derry’s misfortunes, could challenge both. After all, they beat Galway in the Division Two final, after Diarmuid Murtagh scored Gaelic Football’s greatest-ever goal. Biased? Me??

The 12 defeated provincial championship sides enter a two-round “qualifier” competition, to provide All-Ireland quarter-final opponents for the four provincial champions. Ulster should be well-represented. Beyond that, I’m predicting…nothing.

It COULD be a fab spring/summer. Especially the hurling, thanks to its better structure and being the best sport in the world, IMO. The GAA GO website offers multi-games-per-week all year. And my “Annual Pass GB” cost only €49 (£40 at current exchange rates). How much of the “greatest league in the world” would THAT buy?

Anyway. Watch that space, and this space, for the next 15 weeks. And you’ll enjoy, I’m sure.