Sunday 26 March 2017

Code breakers will find rugby tough to crack

The switch from Gaelic to rugby is not as simple as it appears, writes Damian Lawlor

I T'S not often that a rugby autobiography creates a stir in the GAA world, but Bernard Jackman's Blue Blood has achieved just that.

Jackman's just-published account of life with Leinster and Ireland revealed that Carlow footballer Brendan Murphy, then with the Sydney Swans, was offered a €30,000-a-year contract by Leinster despite having never played the game. Jackman, also from Carlow, helped broker the deal, believing it would only take Murphy -- who ultimately declined the offer -- a couple of years to master rugby's complexities.

He also claimed that targeting Murphy was only the start. "They might even pass out some of the young rugby stars of the future," Jackman wrote. "Most of the best athletes in Ireland play Gaelic games and I have always been amazed at how the IRFU never aggressively tried to convert football and hurling stars to our game.

"I also wonder why Leinster, Munster and Connacht are not trying to convert at least one Gaelic footballer or hurler to our game each season. The top young GAA players are outstanding athletes who possess brilliant hand-to-eye co-ordination."

Galway footballer Sean Armstrong is currently playing with Shannon in the AIL and scored a try in his recent debut against Cork Con. He says it is a temporary switch, but it's bound to give others food for thought, particularly with GAA players struggling to find work in this worsening economic climate. The GPA has already helped 230 unemployed GAA players financially, while over 200 hurlers and footballers have left Kerry in the past six months alone to seek work.

But former IRFU fitness coach and current Armagh team trainer Mike McGurn maintains that changing codes is beyond most GAA players right now.

"I can see Bernard's view but a lot of young Gaelic footballers who try rugby will come back with their tails between their legs," he says. "The gap between Gaelic football and professional rugby has grown even wider. Bernard was talking about Brendan Murphy making it with Leinster but I don't think Brendan would have the skill set needed for a rugby career. And it's not just him; that applies to a lot of GAA players at the moment."

Kieran McGeeney said last week that the standard of Gaelic football has never been higher, but McGurn, who was conditioning coach with Anthony Tohill's International Rules team, has a different view.

"We had the cream of Gaelic football talent at our disposal, but our shooting and kicking was very poor and our lads didn't have enough skills. It was clear county teams have put way too much emphasis on fitness and conditioning and not enough on the basic skills.

"Anthony was then expected to work miracles but it doesn't happen like that. Guys couldn't kick the ball accurately over 40 yards and teams are obviously too caught up with fitness training. They're obsessed with weights and most of them are doing the wrong type of weight training anyway. Their skill set is shocking and it's endemic of Gaelic football right now. I don't think many of our lads would cut it at rugby. If they did, they could only play in the back three -- at full-back or on the wings. The GAA guys would struggle with the tackle as well. We tried to implement it with the International Rules but it was alien to them.

"So those are the challenges. Take Sonny Bill Williams of the All Blacks. Offensively, he is awesome; a huge star. But he was a rugby league player before and hasn't a clue in the rucks and mauls. The game of rugby is so technical now that GAA players would struggle just as badly and unfortunately, they wouldn't be as skilful as they were in the past. They wouldn't have the evasion skills or the muscle mass either, so I think Bernard's comments in his book are wishful thinking."

Limerick footballer Stephen Kelly has spent the past four seasons combining Gaelic football and rugby with Shannon. He came late to rugby but with his speed and tenacity he was shoved straight onto the Shannon first team. He has played for Munster A against Ulster, won an AIL title and also enjoyed cup success.

"It's down to every individual," Kelly says. "I was thrown straight in and ironed out my early problems -- that was good. Once the body got used to taking hits, I could make progress. With the economy the way it is, I wouldn't blame lads for giving it a try full-time. They'd feel they have the weight training base and the skills, so why not?

"But the way Gaelic football is heading, it wouldn't be conducive to a lot of lads leaving for rugby. With Shannon, we train way more with the ball than with Limerick and I'd say that would apply to Gaelic teams all over the country.

"With inter-county football there's a template. Get your fitness level right to play a match and a half on any given day, build up your physical strength and tackling, focus on handpassing and ball retention and then work on the kicking side of things. That's the order now -- despite the fact that it's supposed to be 'foot-ball'. It's actually desperate to watch football on TV these days; I'd sooner watch a hurling game."

Kelly added that Shannon's policy, apart from one night's conditioning, is to work every drill with the ball. "So this assumption that GAA players have more natural ball talent is fading," he adds. "I think you could see that in the International Rules, where we had to resort to soccer touches at times. It was poor. The test in Limerick was a disaster because it demonstrated that counties have lost sight of what Gaelic football is about.

"Most inter-county players are afraid to kick the ball for fear of losing possession and the basic skills are not being produced anymore. If a guy has enough talent, I'm sure rugby coaches could work with him alright, and any young lad would have to seriously consider an offer of a professional lifestyle, but I don't think the switch would be as simple as it's made out to be."

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