Wednesday 26 October 2016

Colm O'Rourke: There's no debate: blood testing in the GAA is best for everyone

Crackdown on doping is in the interests of players themselves, says Colm O'Rourke

Published 17/05/2015 | 13:00

At the core of each sport is protecting the game itself against cheats and also ensuring the health of players’ (Noah Seelam/Getty Images)
At the core of each sport is protecting the game itself against cheats and also ensuring the health of players’ (Noah Seelam/Getty Images)

The unknown soldier from Monaghan has created a few waves. Whether he was taking more than milk with his cornflakes or something entirely innocent is not quite clear. Either way he is entitled to an opportunity to clear his name.

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Yet for all that, the wider implications of GAA players being subject to blood tests has arisen. There are those who immediately jumped into defence mode, arguing that the GAA is purer than the driven snow and this imposition and interference into a player's private life should be avoided. Oscar Wilde said that he could resist anything but temptation, and there are a lot of GAA players who would agree with him.

In simple terms, there will be some players who, when asked to raise their hands if they want something that will improve their own performance and their team's chances of winning the All-Ireland, their arms would shoot up, if you'll pardon the pun.

Of course comparing amateurs with professionals in terms of testing is the same as comparing apples with oranges. Yet at the core of each sport is protecting the game itself against cheats and also ensuring the health of players. There is no 50 shades of grey involved. It is black and white.

Naturally there is some apprehension about the implications for a player in the local GAA community - and it is all local in the GAA world - of a positive test but people are able to make their mind up about a substance which is an innocent mistake and something which is performance enhancing. Not that ignorance is a defence, but there is a big difference between somebody taking Nurofen Plus for a headache, which contains codeine, which is banned, and taking a muscle-building substance. And buying dodgy stuff off the internet is most certainly not justifiable.

There is an app for players on all banned substances, and team doctors have most panels very well versed, so while mistakes will occur, they should be very rare. Concern may be expressed about employment prospects for amateur players but there is a simple solution, and that is not to get involved in the first place. In the case of an innocent mistake it certainly would not trouble me to give someone a job where there may be a very good reason for a positive test. Each case deserves to be judged on its merits.

There are those who think that the GAA should survive like an independent republic and have no association with the Irish Sports Council or any testing body. They might even be willing to give up all grants as a result, but eventually everyone takes their head out of the sand and realises that an unpoliced game is very much against the interests of the players themselves. There should be no testing away from training or games but it is a subject where there is no debate: blood testing is best for everyone and if there are players knowingly messing around with illegal substances, they deserve what they get.

In the meantime, the Championship has crept up on us. Most GAA people know that there is one massive game in Ulster between Donegal and Tyrone, but other games have been slipped in under the radar. In this organisation the onus is on the individual supporter to ferret out information. There should have been a mound of advertising and all sorts of promotions on offer to get bums on seats. Maybe most people think it is all a con job and eventually it will be the same old counties who play in August. Of course that is true, but it doesn't mean that there won't be many attractive and entertaining games along the way.

In my opinion there are two foregone conclusions: Dublin to win Leinster and Kerry to win Munster. It would take a great spin doctor to try and make something of these provinces. When Dublin are going for their 20th Leinster in a row some years for now there will be a risk in saying, "I remember when Meath were able to beat Dublin" in case someone would call the men in white coats, as everyone will think that you are raving and it never happened.

It is one good reason to get Dublin out of Croke Park and into places like Tullamore or Longford as it would bring colour and atmosphere to venues which are never used fully and where they would win anyway. Players and supporters would enjoy the day out and the boost to local business would be substantial. Instead they are housed like gods in the big coliseum by the canal. And youngsters would get a chance to meet great players from the Dublin team if they went on tour. More lost opportunities for promotion.

Kerry are going to be better than last year. It will be needed too as things won't just fall as much in their favour. With an unholy trinity of Galvin, Cooper and Walsh waiting in the wings the Kerry practice matches will probably reach the mythological status of Kilkenny hurling training sessions. It does not matter whether the stories about these session are true or not: if you get the reputation of being an early riser you can stay in bed all day. Unless Cork discover the steel of old they look like a group who are not doing enough to avoid the grim reaper. A quarter-final probably but . . .

Connacht is at least a three-horse race. In horse racing the wisdom says that you back the outsider of the three. Certainly Galway and Roscommon have given indications of getting closer to Mayo's level. Roscommon will be in the top division of next year's league and that's where any serious team needs to be. Galway had that chance too but messed up badly with the winning post in sight.

Most interesting of all is Mayo and whether the new management can get a tune out of the old soldiers. As they are a very self-motivated group, Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes have a straightforward job in that way but can they find the missing players? Still, I think they will prevail in Connacht.

Ulster is boringly interesting. There won't be much good football but that is never on the menu. A fish and chips diet. The contenders are numerous and anything goes. If you could get rid of handpassing and bring in the odd bust-up, Ulster would represent the purest form of football, with passion, tribalism and stupidity. Donegal may still have a tune in them; I hope that my choice is not over by this evening.

Below all these contenders the real game goes on, driven by men who love their counties, are loyal to them and the people they represent. In many ways the true heroes of the GAA as they know now despite the hope in their hearts they are only going to be spectators in September.

On that day it is most likely to be one of Dublin and Kerry, or both. Hardly a novel forecast, and the only hope is that occasionally we have to fasten our seat belts on the journey.

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