Hypocrisy of winter ban has to be tackled
C AVAN, it would appear, have been caught bang to rights. Last Sunday evening, in Breffni Park, the county board broke rule 6.43 of the GAA's Official Guide. The rule states: 'The months of November and December shall be closed months for all games involving inter-county teams and collective training for inter-county panels.'
It states a lot more than that, in fact, giving more precise detail on the nature of the ban, but the essence of it is simple: collective training and challenge games for inter-county football and hurling squads are forbidden, and it applies to senior panels, under 21 panels and minor panels. And unlike lots of rules in Ireland, it is unambivalent.
Two weeks ago, Sunday Independent reporter Marie Crowe lifted the lid on the sham that is the GAA's winter training ban. In a special investigation, she uncovered first-hand evidence that the ban was being flaunted by several counties.
More worryingly, it also emerged that county boards were using the ban to train teams on the cheap, refusing to pay expenses or provide food for players after training because they could not officially be seen to condone the rule being broken, even if unofficially they were doing just that by providing facilities and having their people on the ground to open dressing rooms, turn on floodlights, heat showers and provide technical and medical back-up in the normal way.
Said one player: "It's the depths of winter and we are all giving our time, but because we're not supposed to be training, the county board aren't feeding us. They can't put the cost of it through the books so we are the ones suffering."
Then, last week, a second reporter broke ranks. John Fogarty of the Irish Examiner was one of several GAA journalists in Breffni Park last Sunday evening after the Ulster club final to become aware of the fact that a training session was taking place outside. It quickly became apparent that it was the Cavan senior squad, under new manager Val Andrews. Fogarty recognised two players from the 2010 panel and reported it in his newspaper. When his account was questioned, he offered a more extensive version on Tuesday. There appears to be little doubt. The sanction for breaking this rule is the withholding of league dividends, and this should now be visited upon Cavan County Board -- the first county named to be in breach of it.
It is right that the sanction punishes the board directly. Val Andrews did nothing wrong. Neither did the two players. Andrews (pictured) was only put in the position at the end of August and has the same problem other newly appointed managers have in trying to get to know what talent is at their disposal.
Players and managers must be left out of this debate because next summer they are the ones on whom summary judgement falls and if they know their rivals are training, then they must do what they can to stay on an equal footing with them.
The county board, however, is charged with upholding GAA rules -- that is its responsibility. A county board does not have the luxury of being selective. What happens when club games start up in Cavan next spring and the first tranche of players appear before its CCC on disciplinary charges? What credibility will the board have to implement rules when it so blatantly flouted them?
The central argument cannot at this point be that the rule is wrong; it is that the rule is currently in force and therefore must be applied equally to all inter-county football and hurling teams. There are many county boards out there who have insisted to their managers and players that they must observe the terms of the ban -- why then should they be at such a disadvantage when others are callously flaunting it on one hand, and hiding behind it to save money on the other?
The GAA says it needs to have evidence to pursue the matter and has urged anyone with information to come forward. This is a ridiculous stance. The GAA must enforce its own rules, and county boards must be forced to comply. Cavan County Board should not be alone in the dock. Casting aside anecdotal evidence, and concentrating on established fact, the Sunday Independent knows that 13 counties are in full football or hurling training, and in some cases, both.
This is information which could be easily unearthed by the GAA if it has the will to enforce its own rules.
One low-ranking county football team played a challenge last week against a college team with designs on winning the Sigerson Cup next year; four high-profile (tier one) hurling teams are back in training; a football team which reached the latter stages of this year's championship is training three nights a week; a well-known footballer complained on his Facebook page recently that county training has been very tough lately, but had to delete the comment after his manager found out; one high-profile football manager is said to be close to quitting because of low numbers at training; two Dublin-based university teams have organised challenges against two county under 21 teams; one hurler in a tier-one county has spoken about getting no food or expenses for training; another footballer in Leinster, a student, has told of scraping coins together to get enough petrol in the car to get to training and of being told to drive into the back of the training ground and park in the dark.
This is the hypocrisy of the winter training ban and it must stop. While it remains in the rulebook, it must be enforced fully, to the letter. Every county board which ignored it should have its league dividend withheld and this money should be divided among those boards who observed the ban. Alternatively, scrap the rule and drop the pretence about player burn-out -- because it's doing no-one any good.