Senior Hurling Championship Round-Up : Big Trouble for Na Fianna and Boden

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If you haven’t noticed already, the first two rounds of the Senior Hurling Championship have left us with three absolutely intriguing groups going into the final games, with the potential for three of the four groups to end up with three sides tied on four points each.

It hasn’t happened a single time in recent years, and as such, I suspect the implications might not have occurred to a couple of teams yet, who probably still fancy their chances of qualifying.

The manner in which the board have decided to separate teams who are tied is crucial, and most likely going to come as a nasty surprise to Na Fianna and possibly Ballyboden too.

If you haven’t already considered the permutations and combinations, you probably should have, but don’t worry, we’ve done it for you. If you just want the basic what’s going on, skip down to the section titled “How Does this Apply to the Senior Hurling Championship”.

If you want to understand how group competitions in sport have evolved to three different systems for separating teams tied on points, and which one best suits the senior hurling championship, read on.

How soccer tournament groups evolved

Once upon a time in soccer, when teams were tied on points, the solution was simple. The side with the best score difference advanced. Only if that was tied, did it go down to which side won the head to head.

On one level, it was quite simple, and effective. However, Ireland’s group in the 2002 World Cup threw up a flaw in the system. Germany won their opening game against Saudi Arabia 8-0. It effectively put them on four points i.e. unless Cameroon or Ireland would beat the Saudi’s by the same or more, Germany were going to come out on top with score difference if they ended up level with any side.

In a group which was essentially a three horse race with Germany, Ireland and Cameroon, it was potentially going to be decided by a hammering against Saudi Arabia. Germany won their last game so it didn’t come down to score difference in the end as such, but the German’s 8-0 win and Cameroon only beating the Saudis 1-0, meant that Ireland knew a two goal victory against Suadi Arabia would put them through, while Cameroon needed to beat Germany.

On one hand, there was an argument that Germany beating an inferior side by more than Ireland or Cameroon did, proved they were a superior side, and therefore they deserved the goal difference advantage. Both previous and later competitions, however, would show flaws. The goal differences accrued against sides already qualified or already out by the third game, could unfairly sway groups.

Uefa took note and changed the system so that where teams were tied, they would be separated based on the head to head. Murphy’s Law, and their first tournament using this system brought about an even bigger flaw.

In Euro 2004 with Sweden and Denmark both having drawn 1-1 with Italy and both having beaten Latvia, the final game brought about a previously impossible quirk. If Italy would beat Latvia and Sweden would draw with Denmark, the three sides would be tied on five points. This would leave the score difference to be calculated only on the games which involved the three sides.

The problem was that whereas previously, Italy’s fate would have been in their own hands, needing to beat Latvia by more than Sweden or Denmark had done, now their fate was out of their hands, in a different game ; a game where collusion by the two sides could put them both through.

If Sweden and Denmark would draw 2-2 in the final game, it would eliminate Italy on the goals scored rule as all three would have five points and equal goal difference against each other, but Italy would have scored and conceded two while Sweden and Denmark would have scored and conceded three.

Lo and behold, the Scandanavians drew 2-2 and both went through. Denmark’s 89th minute equaliser was, suspiciously, poorly handled by the Swedish keeper (see the goal).

Had Fifa applied this system in 2002, it would have been Germany who needed to beat Cameroon in the final game, not vice versa. As it was, Giovanni Trapatonni became the most unfortunate manager in international soccer history, exiting two tournaments in a row under highly suspicious circumstances, and I’m not talking about Thierry Henry’s handball (the greatest farce in football history).

The Italians could have gone out in the same manner in Ireland’s group in 2012 had the Spanish and Croatians conspired to draw 2-2 in the final game. With the Croatians set to go out at 0-0 against Spain, however, they conceded a goal and went out straight on points as Italy beat Ireland 2-0 in Poznan.

Despite this, Uefa have continued to use this system, which fell very favourably for Ireland in France last summer. Under the straight up goal difference rule, the Italians would have needed a point against Ireland to guarantee top spot in the final group game. Under the head to head system, however, because they had already beaten Belgium, the only side that could catch them, they were guaranteed top spot before the third game.

Ireland beat (almost) their reserve team, and Albania went out as a lower points third place team. In truth, it was a somewhat impure way for the Albanians to be eliminated. Needless to say, nobody in Ireland complained.

The most bizarre example of this system raised its head in the 2012 Euro when the Czechs, Russians and Greeks all looked set to finish on four points, with Poland on three.

The quirk in this system was exposed when this three way tie looked set to qualify Russia first, Greece second and eliminate the Czech’s in third on the goal difference between the three, who had lost 4-1 to Russia in the opener.

However, the Czech’s scored against Poland with 18 minutes remaining which then meant that the Czechs moved to six points and the Czech/Russian game was no longer part of the equation. This now put Russia behind Greece on head to head who were beating them at the time, and would go on to do so.

So, bizarrely, the respective positions of Greece and Russia who were playing, were turned upside down by a score-line in a completely different match!

No matter what way you do it, there’s no perfect system!

How does this apply to the Senior Hurling championship?

Considering the amateur nature of the game, and the five month break between the second and third game, it would indeed be completely unreasonable to decide the championship groups purely based on total score difference. If that were the case, if O’Toole’s should beat Craobh in the final game of Group D, then the group would be decided by whether or not Na Fianna could overturn an eighteen point score difference deficit on Craobh, in their game against an already (practically) eliminated Barróg.

Depending on how the league is going, Barróg may well have stopped training by then. It would be thoroughly unfair on Craobh if they would be eliminated because they had failed to beat a competitive Barróg side by as much as Na Fianna would against an already (practically) eliminated Barróg side.

Hence, in their wisdom, the CCC have a “head to head” policy where teams are tied, even where it’s a three way tie. What that has left us with is a situation, which I suspect a few clubs hadn’t foreseen before last week’s fixtures (see CCC 2017 regulations).

Just to point it out in as clear cut a manner as possible ; if three teams are tied on equal points, the score difference of the games against the side who have finished fourth are not going to count.

So Brigid’s slaying of Balinteer and Cuala’s slaying of Faughs will be of no significance (unless Faughs beat Boden and Crumlin beat Cuala, as you’ll see). A potential slaying of Barróg by Na Fianna will also be of no significance in terms of score difference.

The flip side of the CCC choosing this method, however, is that, as you’ll see it now leaves us open to a situation in two groups broadly the same as that of Sweden and Denmark in 2004!

Where the groups stand?

As things stand there are three different groups which have the possibility to end up with three sides tied on four points. In fact, it’s distinctly likely that it’s going to happen in Group A (Ballyboden, Cuala, Crumlin and Faughs), there’s almost a 50 percent chance of it happening in group D (Craobh, O’Toole’s, Na Fianna and Barróg) and there’s probably close to a 50 percent chance of it happening in Group B too (Lucan, Brigid’s, Fionbarra and Balinteer).

Complicated as it can be, the mathematics on one level are actually quite simple. If a team has won one and lost one against two sides who will potentially end up tied on four points, if they win their final game, in order to keep things in their own hands, they need to have a positive score difference after the first two games. Otherwise, they are relying on the result of the other game to go their way in the final group game.

Delighted as Na Fianna were at full time having beaten O’Toole’s, it appeared to have been lost on them that they actually needed to beat them by five points or more in order to keep qualification in their own hands. Had Ballyboden lost by three or less to Crumlin, it actually wouldn’t have made a massive difference in the bigger scheme of things. Victory against Faughs in the last game would still have guaranteed their qualification. Losing by six, now puts qualification out of their hands!

Let’s look at how it all works out.

Group D

Na Fianna will expect to beat Barróg in their last game. But if O’Toole’s beat Craobh, the four sides will be tied on four points each. The problem for Na Fianna is that in terms of what will then be counted as a three way group to calculate the “head to head” aggregate of those three, they’ve already played their two games and have a score difference of minus four.

In the three team equation, regarding score difference, O’Toole’s are currently on minus one and Craobh on plus five. That means that if O’Toole’s beat Craobh by a point in the final game, Na Fianna will be eliminated as the three way score difference will leave it with Craobh +4, O’Toole’s equal and Na Fianna -4.

In fact, if O’Toole’s should win by anything up to eight points, Na Fianna will go out with the three way table reading O’Tooles +6, Craobh -3, Na Fianna -4 (based on O’Toole’s winning by eight).

An nine point victory for O’Toole’s would leave Croabh and Na Fianna both on -4, which by my interpretation of the rules, will leave the board in a sticky wicket. As far as I can see, there’s an ambiguity relating to how sides would be separated in this eventuality.

So in summary, Na Fianna will need O’Toole’s to not win against Craobh, or to win by ten points or more. If O’Toole’s beat Craobh by between one and eight points, Na Fianna will go out no matter what happens in their own game.

If O’Toole’s win by nine points, it’s unclear, to me at least, how Na Fianna and Craobh will be separated.

Obviously, if Craobh win or draw, and Na Fianna do likewise against Barróg, then Craobh and Na Fianna go through.

Group A

As predicted in my preview to the group “the potential tragedy for whichever side wins this opening game between Faughs and Crumlin is that they could win their opener and manage to beat one of Boden or Cuala, there’s still a real chance they could go out on four points”. By my reckoning, there’s a pretty good chance that’s going to happen.

So if Cuala beat Crumlin in the last game and Boden beat Faughs, the three sides are also going to be level on four points. The current tragedy for Boden is that, like Na Fianna, it’s now out of their hands. When they realise this, if they haven’t already, it will surely feel like a bad dream after toppling All-Ireland champions, Cuala.

After two games, Boden now sit with a minus two score difference with no more games to play in the potential three way tie of Boden/Crumlin/Cuala.

That means that if Cuala are to beat Crumlin by three points in the last game, we’d be left with the three of them on four points and a score difference of Crumlin +3, Cuala -1 and Boden -2.

In fact, if Cuala are to win by anything from three points to seven points in the final game, then Boden will go out with a score difference of Cuala +3, Crumlin -1, Boden -2 (if Cuala win by seven).

Assuming Boden to beat Faughs (for the purpose of explanation), Cuala will have to beat Crumlin by three or more to go through. Winning by two would create the same conundrum as in Group D, where by my interpretation, there’s an ambiguity in terms of how Cuala and Boden would be separated with both on a -2 score difference.

All things considered, with a range of a three to seven point victory for Cuala set to put Boden out, there’s a pretty good chance that Boden won’t go through no matter what they do.

To win the group outright, Cuala have to win by six in their final game (assuming Boden beat Faughs). A five point victory would leave them tied with Crumlin in top spot, once again, with it unclear how they’d be separated in first and second place.

As clubs go, I’d say Cuala’s integrity is the least questionable you could find (see Cuala article), but it is food for thought, what would go through David Treacy’s head if he were to stand over an injury time free, six or seven points up? Score and he’d put through the only side to beat them in two years. Miss, and he’d eliminate them!

Group C

Though the same principle is at play here, it works out differently and it’s much more straight forward. Lucan are the ones who find themselves having already played their two games in the potential three way tie, but unlike Na Fianna and Boden, they have a positive score difference so are sitting pretty.

Their equation is simple. Beat Balinteer and they’re through. It’s impossible for both Brigid’s and Fionbarra to finish on a positive score difference in this potential three way tie, so their +13 score difference would guarantee qualification, almost certainly in top spot (if Brigid’s beat Fionbarra and make the three way tie).

In fact, there’s not much need for calculating permutations in this group. Whether they realise it yet or not, Brigids’ 18 point slaying of Balinteer will be of no more significance than simply the two points picked up should we finish with this three way tie.

They will, however, know what they need to do going into the Fionbarra game. Their 14 point loss to Lucan means that they lie two (match) points and 15 score difference points behind Fionbarra. Therefore they will have to beat Fionbarra by eight in order to put themselves on a minus six score difference and Fionabarra on minus seven, in order to qualify. Anything less and they’re out, unless Lucan fail to beat Balinteer.

An unlikely quirk

Though requiring just short of a miracle for any of Balinteer, Faughs or Barróg to go through, mathematically, it is actually still possible for these three teams to advance!

As opposed to the aforementioned three way ties on four points, should any of the sides who have won their opening two games in any of the groups go on to win their third (obviously quite plausible), we could find ourselves looking at a clear group winner on six points, and the other three tied on two (should Balinteer, Faughs or Barróg win their final games).

The problem for all three of these sides is that they’ve each been on the wrong side of a heavy defeat against a side they would hope to end up tied on two points against, so they’d need to reverse those massive score-lines and top the three way tie on score difference.

Highly unlikely, but mathematically possible.

Group B

In the midst of all of this, Vincent’s and Croke’s are sitting pretty, both qualified, only to play for top spot. Ironically, as it happens, there may well be no advantage to coming top, so that game could be a damp squib.

With the winners and runners up of Group C and D due to play in the quarters, it’s arguable whether or not there would be a perceived advantage in coming top of their group and playing whoever comes second in Group D.

By Stephen O’Meara