Over four days, 21 teams from all around Australia and New Zealand played more than 40 matches with well over 500 players and officials congregating at Gaelic Park.
At finals-day on Saturday, both pitches and the clubhouse at (the soon to be redeveloped) Gaelic Park were used to full capacity all day. The day ended with the hurling final between Victoria and Western Australia.
Lots of things strike you when watching a GAA game abroad. The first is hearing Irish accents shout “C’mon Victoria” which must, given who the state is named after, be one of the most incongruous shouts of support in the GAA. As is the fact that Western Australia (37 times the size of Ireland) must be the GAA unit with the largest area under its jurisdiction.
Also notable is the incredible effort the volunteers engage in to host these events but also to support the now more the 420 GAA clubs operating around the world outside Ireland.
And being at Gaelic Park on Saturday also prompted the question as to what is it that motivates volunteers and players to travel huge distances to training and to play hurling, football and camogie when abroad.
What was clear to me on Saturday was that the love of the games and what they stand for is a very deep well for thousands of Irish abroad.
This is not one of those pieces that says there is an intrinsic link between the GAA and Irish identity; far from it. It is to reflect that for all the complaining directed towards the GAA hierarchy (exacerbated in recent times by social media) such administrators must be doing something right to sustain what can now be seen around the world and what will be represented at the GAA World Games in WIT in 2019.
Indeed, some of the opprobrium directed at the GAA this year — including from this column — has been precipitous and unfair.
Take, for example, the recently mooted rule changes by the Standing Playing Rules Committee (SPRC). The SPRC is chaired by Professor David Hassan of the University of Ulster who, apart from having a strong GAA background, is a globally respected academic in sports policy.
His committee, only put in place since the beginning of the year, evaluated years of video evidence, assessed the data and suggested the rule changes which they admitted would need consultation, trialing and further deliberation at management level in the GAA.
This is best practice.
And even though it may well turn out that some of the rule changes are not adopted and have unintended consequences, the criticism directed towards the changes is premature.
Of all the rule changes mooted by the SPRC, the introduction of the sin bin does appear strangely formulated. In most sports, and Ladies Gaelic football is a prime example, a yellow card results immediately in 10 minutes in the bin — you could call this the ordinary sin-bin. Under the SPRC’s version of it, the player must accumulate two yellows — you could call this the “venial sin-bin”.
On its face, it doesn’t appear to make sense but then given the outraged reaction by many leading inter-county mangers when a moderated version of the ordinary sin bin was first trialed in 2005, you can see (if still not agree with) the pragmatic nature of the SPRC’s rationale.
The pushback in 2005 against the sin-bin reminds us of a recurring undercurrent in GAA disciplinary matters: vociferous calls generally for ‘Croke Park’ to fix the problem of ill-discipline are rarely matched by clubs, managers or players taking personal responsibility for their ill-discipline.
Videos of brawls at recent club matches, as shared on social media, have again focused on a propensity for violence in the GAA. On viewing the clips, there is no doubt that players leaving the field of play to attack onlookers or spectators entering the field of play to attack players have all the hallmarks of criminal assault.
Moreover, and as former Armagh footballer Enda McGinley warned this week, where a single punch, backed by years of gym work, lands with force, it could have fatal consequences. If that happens, manslaughter charges could follow and a civil claim for compensation would be substantial.
As previously suggested here, where individuals or clubs face grave misconduct charges, it would be better if matters were handled by a central GAA disciplinary committee and not the relevant county board.
And yet an undercurrent or feature of these events is for those involved to sometimes blame the referee on the day for being too lax or to criticise the county board for not previously deterring such misconduct as a consequence of too lax an attitude on suspensions. Does a referee having a bad day or speculation on what a county board might or might not do really play a part in one player’s decision to punch another or engage in a brawl? No, it doesn’t.
Sometimes, the decision to punch another or brawl might well be an instinctive reaction to a provocation or in self-defence or defence of a teammate (though it is still ill-discipline) but to hop a fence and repeatedly punch another is just thuggery.
Maybe when we speak about who is lax in ill-discipline in the GAA, clubs themselves might reflect on their playing and coaching ethos and what they deem is acceptable in those who represent them? Club-wide suspensions in vicarious liability for the misbehaviour of players (and not fines or individual suspensions) may be the way to go.
Returning to the broader theme of what the GAA does well; of course, there have been instances this year of where the GAA could have handled matters better and with greater alacrity – the “Newbridge or Nowhere” issue and the Liam Miller tribute are prime examples.
Equally, there is a lot that the GAA centrally does well, such as its prohibition on gambling sponsorship and, more recently still, its announcement of a high-powered committee chaired by Michael Dempsey, the multi-All-Ireland-winning coach with the Kilkenny senior hurling team. The committee will seek to lay out best practice in developing talented young players from the ages of 13 to 20.
Even on the issue of the perceived funding favouritism directed toward Dublin in the last decade or so, it must be asked, in an area of the country which the ESRI projects that up to 42% of the population will soon live and work, were not the GAA entirely right to target Dublin for coaching-, player- and participation-development? In fact, in terms of the participation percentage-to-population ratio, the GAA still has a bit to go in Dublin compared to other counties.
Finally, mention of the ESRI highlights one area which the GAA centrally really must address with urgency: the issues raised by the Club Players’ Association and many recently retired county players, such as Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh, on the need to maintain regular club fixtures and the relationship between the club and the (unsustainably demanding) inter-county schedule.
Traditionally, the core principle on which the GAA was based implied a sporting contract of “club first”. Two stark statistics from the recent ESRI report on GAA inter-county player commitments suggests that contract is now in breach: just under three-quarters of players stated that they would not want to spend more time with their club if it was at a cost to their personal inter-county career success. When asked what other area of their life they would like to concentrate on if their inter-county demands lessened, less than 3% said it would be with training or playing with their club.
New playing rules etc are important but they are secondary to addressing the emerging club-v-county divide.
Put another way, will the future Gaelic Park in Melbourne be a place where the many go to play GAA regularly with their mates on its redeveloped pitches or where the few go from time-to-time to watch it being played by others in its redeveloped clubhouse?
- Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law, University of Melbourne.