Tuesday 28 March 2017

Attitudes must alter from the ground up

John Greene

John Greene

With three minutes to go in Ulster's final Heineken Cup pool game in Clermont two weeks ago, the visitors were only four points behind and had secured good possession in their opponents' half.

Already qualified for the quarter-finals, Ulster knew a win would see them top the group and perhaps earn them a coveted home tie. Clermont were pulled for a knock-on by referee Dave Pearson, who awarded Ulster a scrum. Johann Muller then spoke to Pearson and appeared to suggest it had been a deliberate knock-on, which would be a penalty for Ulster, and maybe even a sin-binning. As captain, Muller is entitled to speak with the referee but Pearson clearly did not like his tone and reversed his decision, awarding a penalty to Clermont. This allowed Brock James to lift the pressure on his side, who hung on for the win.

Pearson's decision was critical. It may be argued that it was an excessive punishment on Ulster in the circumstances, an overt and unnecessary display of authority by a referee, but it was a reminder of the attitude in rugby that no matter how high the stakes, indiscipline won't be tolerated.

The following day, two GAA clubs met in an All-Ireland junior football semi-final in Portlaoise. This game between Dromid Pearses from Kerry and Derrytresk from Tyrone made national headlines following a mass brawl which had the Liveline brigade in full voice. It was held up as the end of days, the fracas that finally tipped the GAA over the edge. Nonsense of course but once the Liveline brigade gets up to top speed it's very hard to apply the brakes of common sense.

But the row in itself wasn't the real story. While the focus in the aftermath has primarily been on the punishments meted out, surely it is of more importance for the GAA to start looking seriously at the underlying causes of instances such as the one in Portlaoise. And these underlying causes have little or nothing to do with a north/south divide, or a Kerry/Tyrone rivalry, or anything else which happened on the day.

Because ultimately it boils down to tolerance and respect -- two traits far more prevalent in rugby, for example, than in Gaelic games. The former seems to have been able to breed in its players a tolerance for the shortcomings of others, including referees and other players, a tolerance less typical to the GAA. This is not to say that rugby does not have its problems, because it does, but not on the scale evident in the GAA.

There are plenty of reasons why violence appears endemic in the GAA. Some are complex, woven into the fabric of Irish life. After all, the GAA has spent over 100 years playing on the very partisanship which can often be at the heart of the violence. Ask not what your club can do for you and all that.

The book The GAA: A People's History points out that the emphasis on the local, heightened as it was from very early on by the creation of county competitions which served to create intense rivalries between communities, was the masterstroke which effectively laid the foundation blocks for the association. The problem is that this too is perhaps its greatest flaw. And maybe in that contradiction the paradox at the heart of the GAA is exposed: an organisation with noble intent too often undone by ignoble behaviour. (Could this be said of our country too, I wonder?)

But it is too easy just to nominate the tribal element of Gaelic games as the sole cause of the problem. Yes, it is central to it, and needs to be tackled but this will be a lengthy process and will take generations to iron out, if indeed it can ever truly be overcome given the make-up of the GAA.

There are, however, other more immediate actions which can be taken. The first is obviously in how the Association deals with incidents. Punishments need to be severe and wide-ranging so that clubs (or counties) must pay a heavy price for indiscipline among their rank. In this regard, fines are not the way to go -- suspensions from competitions for a period is a far greater deterrent. Maybe this will encourage them to promote a different culture among their members.

The second is even more critical. One of the principal causes of the kind of scenes we saw two weeks ago can probably be traced back to the underage development of players and mentors.

Despite huge advancements in recent years in Irish sport, including in the GAA, there is still a big question mark over the conduct of adults either directly involved with, or on the periphery of, underage teams. Although this problem is not exclusive to the GAA, it does appear to be a bigger issue for it than for the IRFU or FAI.

It is widely held now that teenagers involved in sport are more influenced by their coach than by, say, their parents. This means that there is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of coaches to behave in a way which has the best interests of youngsters and their development at heart. Too often, however, they are corrupted by exposure to adults' behaviour at games, including dishonesty, abuse of referees, intimidation, even physical violence -- essentially, they are indoctrinated into a win-at-all-costs philosophy which places the emphasis on taking short cuts to success at the expense of discipline and even integrity.

We've all been at games, in one sport or another, and seen adults on sidelines behave disgracefully. Their entry into coaching was probably full of genuine intent, but too often this is overtaken by their character flaws so that we have the unseemly sight of adults projecting their own inadequacies, failures and petty jealousies onto boys and girls in their formative years.

In recent years the GAA has increased its level of training for coaches but there is still a lot of work to be done. Of course, the big problem for clubs in particular is that any person prepared to volunteer their services in this day and age is unlikely to be turned away. Yet, in the same breath, clubs must acknowledge that their youth are their greatest asset and must be properly looked after. This is where the fight against violence can really begin.

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