Kicking Out: Sigerson has its own questions to answer amid fixtures chaos
LAID beside December’s barrenness, the January sod can seem so fertile to GAA journalists.
After a month of filler like the best teams of the last 20 years (don’t throw away the key, Your Honour), the start of the new season has always brought controversy with it.
New rules often top the bill, but they don’t come along all that often. The staple diet in Ulster in recent years has been rows between county teams and universities over who plays for who, rows among the colleges themselves over player eligibility, and fixture pile-ups.
It is a month for conflict. It’s great.
Much of what might look shiny and new, right up to the far-fetched like Donegal’s withdrawal from the McKenna Cup, has actually just been repackaged.
But this year we have been rapidly propelled into new territory. Even by the chaotic standards of the GAA’s fixture debacle, this is just crazy.
Into a pot that contained the pre-season competitions and National Leagues have come the All-Ireland club series, the Sigerson Cup and a new U20 league.
Stretch them out and they’d nearly fill the 12 months for you, yet here we are.
Since they were invited in, the universities have used the McKenna Cup to such good effect for their upcoming Sigerson Cup campaigns.
The decision to move their championship to January was an attempt by the GAA’s Higher Education body to stake a claim on players. Amid growing pressure from inter-county managers in February, they cut the competition down to just three weeks, removed the controversial back door element from last year and brought it into January, away from the National League.
In theory, it didn’t seem like the worst idea.
All it’s succeeded in doing, however, is weakening the colleges’ already desperate grip for survival.
The question over the last two weeks has been fairly one-dimensional: Is there any need for the pre-season inter-county competitions to continue existing?
The answer is not really. But like anything, a change has to be streamlined. Not much point in Ulster giving up the games that clearly still have a strong allure with the public – see the crowd of 5,500 in Armagh last Wednesday night – if the other three provinces don’t do the same.
It is, however, only part of the question. What must also be asked is whether the Sigerson Cup has a future in its current guise.
The stock solution provided by inter-county managers over the past few weeks is that the universities must bite the bullet, drop their league competition and play their championship off in October and November.
That takes no cognisance of pushing it right into the heart of the club championships. The tussle for players would only move rather than desist, and it’s a battle that universities would be equally unlikely to win.
Colleges have a hold on players because so many of them are enrolled in their courses through elite athlete schemes or scholarships. One of the key conditions is that they represent the university in their chosen sport.
Take the teams put out for the two big Sigerson Cup games at the weekend.
Extra-time was required to separate heavy-hitters University College Dublin (UCD) and Ulster University, while reigning holders University College Cork (UCC) edged out NUI Galway by the narrowest of margins.
Of the 60 players that started the two games, 57 of them are either currently involved with county senior, U20 or minor squads, or have been in very recent past.
Better still, UCC had five county seniors that withdrew from the starting team they had named, as well as Kerry prospect David Shaw, while NUIG were only able to bring captain Kieran Molloy off the bench at half-time because of his involvement with Corofin in this weekend’s All-Ireland club final.
Ulster University had three recent senior county footballers in their ranks that didn’t play for them, while Con O’Callaghan had to withdraw from the UCD team after suffering an injury in the warm-up. His place was taken by Monaghan’s Barry McGinn.
Third-level football was once regarded as a place where the decent club player got his chance to rub shoulders and learn from the best by playing alongside them rather than against.
Where colleges have an option, there are no decent club players near a team now.
Those numbers are reflected in the recently published ESRI report, which reveals that over 61 per cent of inter-county players have a degree, compared to 35 per cent of the general male population of the same age.
The report points out that their driven personalities and the fact that the institutions come hunting them are potential factors in that, but also that they’re going into third level education because “it [facilitates] players to meet the commitments required to play senior inter-county at that stage in their life”.
But here’s the other thing. Do these lads really need the hassle of the Sigerson Cup?
The student experience is not what it once would have been for them. The inter-county competitor now spends his Monday evening in Belfast eating Naked meals on a foam roller rather than rolling around the Hatfield and getting naked.
That 18-22 age group is the most vulnerable in terms of men dropping out of their games, but the men playing Sigerson Cup do not fall into that category.
Billy Morgan had a swipe about the GAA becoming an organisation for the elites, but so many of those at his disposal fit that same bill, and the rest are almost all sub-elites.
Those that aren’t trying to forge a path in the county senior squad are laying their base at U20 level. With its move to an earlier slot, and the introduction of a league, there’s more congestion than ever.
The Sigerson Cup is very much a participant sport. Crowds at the games are pitiful.
Its hold on players, the pressure it puts them under, and its status in the calendar are all vastly disproportionate to its value.
Let it be what it needs to be at this stage – a social event for the average footballers who have left home and find their ties to the GAA slipping.
Beyond their need to meet scholarship terms, there just isn’t a compelling argument to be made in favour of inter-county players playing in it.