Sunday 23 July 2017

Comment: Wrong on all sides in Connolly saga but reluctance to accept bans in the GAA must be addressed

Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

John Mullane tells a story about the red card he picked up in the Munster hurling final of 2004.

Waterford were rising at the time and that win represented their second Munster title in three years, having not won in the province for 39 years before that.

Their win over Cork set up an All-Ireland semi-final clash with neighbours Kilkenny, but Mullane's red card meant he would miss the game unless a route around the GAA's disciplinary system could be found.

At the time players and counties were going to extraordinary lengths to circumvent their suspensions.

That same summer, Westmeath's Rory O'Connell went to the High Court to have a suspension he picked up against Offaly lifted in time for their first Leinster final in 55 years.

O'Connell was successful and he played as Westmeath made history and won their maiden Leinster title after a replay against Laois.

Mullane had a similar option. A local businessman had made it clear he was willing to financially back any appeal Mullane might take to the courts, but he went against it.

"I got sent off, but at the time there were an awful lot of people going the other route of challenging suspensions through the courts," he recalled.

"The opportunity was there for me to go down that route, but I always felt that if you do the crime, you have to do the time.

"I felt I had a duty to be an honourable GAA man. I had done wrong and I felt it wouldn't have been right to have played in an All-Ireland semi-final, knowing that I had done wrong."

Mullane sat in the stands and Waterford lost that All-Ireland semi-final by three points.

What might have happened had he played is unknown, but it remains a noteworthy incident because the De La Salle man went to the naughty step when he was sent, rather than challenging the decision.

Often in the GAA, players and teams tend to test the letter of the law, even if the spirit of it is crushed in the process.

That was the case again yesterday when it emerged that Diarmuid Connolly would seek a hearing of his proposed 12-week suspension.

It was the inevitability of that decision, rather than the decision itself, that is the most concerning aspect of the case. Counties and clubs seem to feel emboldened by the GAA's disciplinary system, which essentially offers three levels of appeal.

Connolly has been the beneficiary of the appeals system before. It was pointed out over the weekend that he has been sent off in two All-Ireland semi-finals and not seen any suspension.

But it's not just Connolly who has benefited when the GAA's Official Guide is put to the test and points of law are made.

Mayo's Kevin Keane also got off a red card, despite footage showing him connecting with Michael Murphy in the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2015. It seems the higher the stakes, the more willing counties are to push back, regardless of where the blame may lie.

GAA people can quickly adopt a policy of Nimby-ism when it comes to discipline: it's all commendable as long as it doesn't affect my team.

There is wrong on all sides here. In Connolly's incident, he held on to the ball when it had gone out of play and he didn't need to. He's essentially left alone once he drops possession.

There's also the common sense side of it. Was there was any need for him to be so animated in a game his side were clearly going to win?

In any case, there's no defence for putting your hand on an official. Connolly is around long enough to know that. And when he was charged with 'minor physical interference' the CCCC's hands were effectively tied. They proposed a 12-week ban, the minimum for such an infraction under the rules.

That brings us neatly to the next issue. The Official Guide needs updating. There is already the issue of game bans being used in some scenarios and time suspensions being used in others.

Connolly's 12-week ban would be a championship-ending one for all but four teams in the country.

Had he picked up a similar ban in a defeat in, say, a county final, there's a good chance that he'd miss little significant action. How can a suspension for the same offence have such wildly differing consequences?

The appeal shouldn't sit well with the broader GAA community either. When Connolly was handed a reprieve by the Disputes Resolution Authority to play in the 2015 All-Ireland final it was because of a "lack of fair procedure" afforded to him early in the GAA's process, despite the fact that Connolly's actions - a strike on Mayo's Lee Keegan - started the procedure.

The law was served, but was justice done?

A similar case can be made here. The ruling, while harsh in the extreme in the context of his season, is the only option available to the CCCC.

Still, Dublin have sought a hearing. Plenty of other counties would do the same in a similar spot, rather than take their spot on the naughty step and sit out the suspension.

And that's the problem.

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