TONY WATENE’S love affair with Gaelic Games began in an unconventional fashion.
“Like most other kids in New Zealand I started out playing rugby, but I was also playing soccer with a Hungarian chap, and he was also playing Australian Rules football; he asked me to come and try that sport, so I did.
“There I met a few Irish fellas who were also playing gaelic football and they asked me to try that. So I did.”
Tony wasn’t the only New Zealander playing gaelic football either. You know that urban myth about famous All Black Zinzan Brooke having played the Irish round-ball game in his youth? Turns out not be myth at all.
“Zinzan played,” confirms Tony, “As did his two brothers — I played against Marty, and I also played with and against Bernie McCahill, who was another All Black. But Zinzan was one of those people who was good at all sports.”
Nowadays people like Tony (and Zinzan!) are still playing hurling and gaelic football in parts very foreign and in some of those places it’s still because of the occasional stray Irishman.
In a twist of fate that he outlines with a wry smile, Tony found himself in Ireland.
In an even greater twist, he also found himself working for the GAA, spreading his new gospel.
“I made the Wellington county team and we played in the Australasian games, ten years in-a-row. During that time I met then GAA president Joe McDonagh, along with Liam Mulvihill, who was then general secretary, and they were starting to talk about the global expansion of gaelic games. Then my partner won a trip to Europe on a radio quiz.
“She got the air tickets and some spending money, and off we went. A very good friend of mine, Tony Dunne — he was my coach in Wellington – had come back to Ireland and I said to him, ‘See if you can hook me up with a job.’
“He got on to Pat Daly (GAA Director of Games), told him about me, that I went off on a one-year sabbatical. That was 12 years ago! Since then I’ve seen radical changes in the GAA, and had a variety of interesting jobs working on inter-county transfers, sanctions and the anti-doping policy.”
Watene’s current role is National Inclusion Officer, working with people with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities, in an effort to open the GAA to everyone. It was in that role that he was present in Croke Park on Saturday last for an all-day games development conference. He wasn’t alone – the original intent was to host 500 coaches from around the globe but such was the response that the numbers had to be closed off at 700.
Among those present were Martin Lynch from Wexford, who has twice been to Buenos Aires in recent years to coach hurling; Andrew Kitterick from Huddersfield and with a strong Yorkshire accent to match, a GAA Games Development Administrator (GDA) in Britain; and Ronan McCarthy from Portaferry in Down, also a GDA in Britain but with specific responsibility for Scotland and for the British third-level education system.
Those three are among the missionaries whose sole job now is to grow hurling and gaelic football internationally, to bring two sports that have long been absorbed into Ireland’s soul to a wider audience.
Already, they say, the signs of growth are there. “I found people in Buenos Aires who were almost more Irish than the Irish themselves,” said Lynch. “In just two weeks it was amazing to see the progress they made, and that was because they wanted so badly to learn about hurling. We worked with kids aged six to 18, a lot of girls from 14 to 18 — they were mad keen on camogie, they thought it was the best game.
“We’re going in the right direction,” continued Field; “Young lads playing now in England have the potential to go places, and they’ve shown that in the Féile. I cover the north of England and we have big numbers in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle and so on.”
As for McCarthy: “Before I got this job I spent three years in London and the GAA is massive there, the schools welcome you with open arms. They’ve got soccer, they’ve got rugby, basketball, cricket, but is something new for them to try – the kids love it.”
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