Season’s End

It is one of those glorious May evenings but you could cut the tension with a knife.  You have made it this far, the business end of the season.  Nerves jangle as the participants brace themselves for the upcoming proceedings which will go on until the man in the middle calls time.  There will as always be winners and losers.  Nervous glances are shared.  Heavy breaths are drawn; chests tighten as time seems to have temporarily stood still.  Yes that’s right; it’s your Rugby Club’s AGM.

With the quorum present the Chairman kicks things off.  The Secretary reads out the minutes of the last AGM which in spite of the presence of so many self proclaimed revolutionaries could be from any one of the last twenty years.  The various officers then give their accounts from their respective organisational spheres.  The Social Officer is lavishly praised from the floor by those who “secretly” were planning a coup for his position but backed out when they realised they were not going to gain the necessary support.  The Grounds Officer pleads for money to invest in the pitches and it is agreed that this will be considered by the new committee.  And so it goes until the Captain’s Reports.  The Thirds’ captain reports that while they only won two games there was a great spirit in the team and all boded well for next year.  Applause all round.  The Seconds’ captain stated that while they had a poor start to the season they more or less turned things around after Christmas by winnings nearly half of their games.  Young players, by which he meant the three lads in the side who are under 30, were coming through and should be challenging for the first team next season.  Applause all round.

The Firsts’ team captain stands up.  His uncle was the Club captain in their last successful era back in the early 90s which ensures that the older generation still regard it as a big club and anything less than 100% success is seen as failure.  In spite of a high injury toll and players being poached, the team still managed to come second in the league and made the semi final of the cup and he was glad to take on the role again next season.  Muted applause with some choosing to keep their arms folded, among them the captains’s uncle.

Election of Officers is next up which is essentially a very well attired game of musical chairs without the music which is why there is no end in sight.  The election of committee members from the floor sees a number of different physical reactions.  Those who want to be elected sit upright making sure they are seen while others; typically the younger members are squirming, trying desperately to make themselves invisible lest they be asked to “do their bit for the club”.  Spare a thought for the outgoing Underage Officer who had delivered an impeccably rehearsed speech, probably written by his wife about family and work commitments in his quest for freedom only to be suffer a fatal lapse in concentration at the crucial moment and now slumps back in his seat to contemplate attending fortnightly meetings for the next 12 months.  The Club Critic is duly proposed.  Everyone knows he will say no but there is a sizeable wager going on what well trotted out excuse he will use this year.  Upcoming hip replacement surgery ensures that no money changes hands as well as one or two embarrassed glances.

With all the players in place for next season there is the dreaded “Any Other Business “(A.O.B).  Issues here can range from the cost of toilet paper to the cost of a coach and relative to the individual both subjects are of grave importance.  Some say the teams need more selectors, the coach says he needs more players.  The same beleaguered coach is ignoring some great players on the Thirds.  If they’re that good why aren’t they on the Seconds?  Who is going to cut the pitches this year and how much are we willing to pay them? Why haven’t we paid them for last year?  The implementation of 5 year plans.  Or more pertinently the drawing up of 5 year plans which has been in the pipeline for roughly about 5 years.

This is probably the only occasion in the season when all these people are in the same room and their collective passion has you saying quietly to yourself that maybe this year will be different.  Reality is not long setting in however and it is at this point that the cynics among us see the 9pm start time as a deliberate tactic.  It is past midnight and those who really are striving for change are getting wearisome and just haven’t got the energy to battle on while the status quoers agree that all these issues are important and will of course be taken under review by the incoming committee.  You leave knowing that the next year will vary little from the one just past and what’s more you know you’ll be back here again on another glorious evening in May.

The Amateur Status of the GAA

When the subject of amateurism in the GAA is brought up it is important to make one point clear.  The GAA is not an amateur organisation.  It is a professional body in every way and is virtually no different to the IRFU or the FAI.  Indeed many would make the case that it exceeds either of its sporting cousins in terms of professionalism.  There are people out there who make a full time living out of the GAA and Gaelic Games generate millions in revenue from gate receipts, sponsorship deals and television rights.  The only people who do not see any return on this vast fortune are the actual wealth creators, namely the players.  So the issue boils down to a simple question of ‘Should Players be paid’?

 If anyone visiting from outside Ireland unfamiliar with the GAA tuned in on any given Sunday during the summer and happened upon a hurling or football contest I daresay that it wouldn’t even cross their minds that the top class athletes on the screen before them were not only being paid but handsomely so. And why shouldn’t they be you may ask.  These players attain a level of fitness that is pushing their bodies to the limit in light of the fact that they also have to work at full time jobs.  Compare this with the professional athlete whose life revolves around his or her training and nothing else to distract their focus.  It appears that the biggest obstacle to paying players is a belief out there that it would destroy the very essence of what the GAA is about and that the paying of elite players would dilute the volunteer ethic that is the heart and soul of GAA clubs up and down the country.  Even if the GAA were to completely embrace professionalism it is improbable that the players would ever earn wages to match those of Ireland’s current crop of rugby players and impossible for them to come remotely close to what our soccer players in England earn.  And yet rugby and soccer clubs all over Ireland and indeed worldwide are run on a voluntary basis no different to most GAA clubs.

 Most sporting organisations that were once considered amateur and then made the cross over to professionalism did so reluctantly.  Inevitably it is the outside commercial forces that ultimately push such a transition through as opposed to the any innate desire of the people involved.  A recent example is that of rugby when in August 1995 the governing body of world rugby, the IRB declared the game ‘open’.  The IRFU was among the most reluctant of all to enter this new age and indeed would never have done so off its own bat.  Basically it made the transition because everyone else was doing so and to not follow would mean being left behind and the end of the game in this country competing at the top level.  This is where the GAA has a huge advantage if it does go down the road of financially rewarding players.  It is an indigenous body with no outside organisation applying any pressure or challenging for control of its players.  At a push you might point to the AFL but Aussie Rules is a completely different game which involves travelling to the other end of the planet and hoping that you might adapt to their game.  The return in recent seasons of Michael Shields to Cork and the slow progress of the O’ Hailpin brothers in Carlton proves that this option is hardly a guarantee of success.   Certainly the trickle of a few hopefuls to Australia to try a game they have never actually played could not be compared with the mass exodus of rugby players to England in the mid to late 90s.  Also the club/ county structure in Ireland as opposed to the franchise system in existence in Australia dictates in most cases where and for whom players play, thus extending even more control over players.

It is unlikely that professionalism per se could ever truly exist here even at inter county level as there is such a limited pool of top quality players and teams to begin with.  Also there are plenty of players out there who would prefer to keep the jobs that they currently have as opposed to stalling their progress up the career ladder.  The advent of professionalism in rugby has seen the introduction of new competitions such the Celtic League and the Heineken Cup.  The GAA at inter county level is all about the Championship and the Championship season nowadays does not truly come alive until the quarter final stages when it is pure and simple knock out sport, the traditional fare as it were.  The fact that this is what the paying public truly seek is emphasised by the fact that Cork v Kerry in the Munster Football Final hasn’t had an attendance of over 25,000 in the last number years.  Therefore there wouldn’t be enough of an appetite to have more games that are currently on the calendar.  And while what is there now makes for a busy amateur player, it would equally make for a pretty idle professional. 

 The reality for the GAA to use a sporting cliché is that the ball is in their court.  Unlike the IRFU in the early stages of professionalism they can dictate what financial rewards players should be entitled to as opposed to succumbing to the templates of other peer bodies.  This new reality should be embraced at the earliest possible stage.  The worst course of  action would be to put up a staunch resistance as it would only cause a split such as the Cork Player’s Strike of 2009.  Representatives of both sides should be able to come up with a strategy that first of all ensures that no players is ever out of pocket representing his county and also guarantees a reward more tangible than the pride of wearing the jersey.  Match fees could be graded under the following heading: (A) Starting XV/ Panel Member/ Playing Substitute (B) League /Championship (C) Stage of League/ Championship.  Therefore a player starting in an All Ireland Final might be on a match fee of say €1,000 while a sub that plays gets €750 and a panel member €500 thus guaranteeing a return for all the players involved.  Win bonuses could be worked into any proposed deals as this is the norm in any other sport.  Also, players could get a certain percentage of the gate receipts, even something as low as 5%.  This would encourage the various Provincial Councils and County Boards to off set the loss of gate receipts by doing a better job of promoting games.  Too often in the summer do we see big stadiums with so called big teams and a half full ground  The most glaring example of this is Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds which holds 49,500 but has only had more than half that amount through the turnstiles on two occasions. 

 It might well be asked in light of the above as to why the GAA should pay these players when they seem willing to play for nothing.  And when players retire prematurely, another willing soul eagerly steps into the breach.  The answer to this question is that it is simply the right thing to do.  It is incumbent on the GAA that such a move should not require a push from the GPA or even a sniff of a player’s strike.  Players are now giving more of a commitment than at any time in the 125 years of the Association and at no stage have players ever been under so much scrutiny, be it from the media, the fans or even themselves.  Also, young men in their 20’s and early 30’s are operating under more financial, familial and social pressures than at any other time in the history of the State.  The possible sums of money involved wouldn’t even cause a ripple in the ocean that is the GAA’s finances.  The GAA cannot expect the current status quo to continue whereby its players generate millions for them and if those same players are lucky, they get the prize of a holiday at the end of the year.  The GAA is above all else a cultural organisation and recent events such as the opening up of Croke Park to ‘other games’ show that it is not above changing with the times.  The latest change to modern times is how the organisation treats its players and how smooth a transition this proves to be is entirely within the hands of the GAA itself.

Summer Rugby

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With the focus nowadays generally focused on the fortunes of our  professional provincial team the state of the game at grassroots level seems to once again be the furthest thought on anyone’s mind.  Where there once was a time when regular club players got to rub shoulders with Internationals, those days are now consigned to history.  It is only professional players on the fringes of the Provincial squads who continue to tog out with club sides with any regularity and even these sporadic appearances could some day have serious consequences, particularly with regard to front row players, as the gap between amateur and professional ranks gets wider.  In effect, the IRFU is presiding over a drawn out divorce between the two sides and it is high time that both sides went their separate ways.

 A possible solution to speed up this process; Summer Rugby.  The professional game in Europe will eventually do likewise in order to facilitate a global season with the southern hemisphere.  There is no reason for the amateur arm of the game in this country to have to sit idly by and wait for the major northern nations and the IRB to get their act together. 

 The reaction of most people in this country would be that such a move would of course be a direct clash with the GAA.  The reality is that rugby, despite drawing a disproportionate amount of media attention is still very much a minority game in this country and attracts sparse crowds, both at junior and senior club level, compared to all levels of Gaelic games.  The few people that you might lose to a GAA game would probably be cancelled out by those who would go along to a rugby match simply because they can watch the game in more comfortable conditions.  The huge success of tag rugby in this country goes to show that if clubs are organised, there is great potential for rugby clubs to be vibrant social outlets in their communities.  The fact that rugby clubs get to play their major games at home as opposed to neutral venues in the GAA is another potential plus point.

Rugby as it stands particularly a junior level (which contains the vast majority of players) is a very anti social pursuit due to the fact that a good portion of games take place on a Sunday and a night out after a game is not nearly as appealing with Monday morning looming.  If the game was played from March to September (or possibly a more condensed playing calendar), then games would not be confined to the weekend and could be played any day of the week as currently happens in the GAA.  Also the increasing number of Heineken Cup and International weekends is putting even more strain on the club rugby calendar.

With regard to players who play rugby and gaelic, they simply would have to make a choice.  In any event, even at lower levels of the GAA, the number of dual players (hurling and football) is dwindling and the number playing rugby and gaelic even more so.  Plus who is to say that you wouldn’t gain more players due to the more favourable playing conditions.

 Some may also feel that the pitches in June and July may be too hard.  They surely couldn’t be any harder than those played on say in South Africa for example and would also make matches being called off due to unplayable surfaces virtually a thing of the past and result in less fixture congestion.

 It’s hard to envisage the IRFU ever having the foresight to ultimately make such a move as there is so little history of any type of innovation when it comes to rugby in this country.  We will as always wait and see what others do as opposed to take the lead ourselves.  The powers that be live in their own cocoon and have little or no knowledge or indeed interest of what goes on in the rest of the country.  Rugby is now big business and the club game, rather than being nurtured and looked upon as the provider of the Union’s ultimate resource, i.e. players, is being treated as a nuisance.  This was confirmed at a meeting in Charleville, with players from both junior and senior clubs.  It was one of those meeting set up by the IRFU to give the impression that they actually were concerned about the club game when in fact they were going to hand pick points from these get-togethers to implement their own pre determined agenda.  When the idea of summer rugby was put to the Chairman of the meeting, a leading IRFU figure he made the point that such a move would result in an obvious clash with other summer sports.  Fair enough you would have thought presuming he was referring to hurling and football, only to discover he was talking about golf! 

While this may seem to be contradicting the earlier point of separating the amateur and professional branches of the game it must be remembered that all professional players will at some point have been amateur themselves and with this in mind the best possible framework for the amateur game should be put in place.

 The main benefit out of all of this would  be a vastly more skilful and enjoyable game from both the point of view of players and spectators and a more rounded player.  Back play in this country is of a very low standard and this can be attributed to those freezing Tuesday and Thursday nights when the last thing people want is to stand around going through basic skills and just do something to keep warm.  These skills should grace all levels of the game and no longer be the preserve of the minority