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Eugene McGee: Stop driving players away -- scrap winter training ban

In theory this was a massive weekend for all inter-county players because from Saturday, they have regained their freedom -- something akin to what hostages must feel when they are eventually set free.

For the past two months the GAA have, in effect, held all county players as hostages. This was achieved by the crazy decision at GAA Annual Congress to ban collective training for inter-county teams in November and December, which has now brought about this sense of freedom around the country as our county stars need no longer abstain from their favourite sport.

The Catholic Church used to go in for this sort of enforced abstinence many years ago, when meat could not be eaten on Fridays, nore more so than during Lent -- but Lent only lasted for 40 days, so the GAA decided to go one better with 61 days of football and hurling abstinence.

Mind you, the GAA have no objection to their county players partaking in rugby or soccer during November and December -- but not Gaelic games. How times change for those of us old enough to remember the infamous Rule 27 in the GAA -- more commonly known as 'the Ban' -- a rule which prevented GAA players playing soccer or rugby among other 'foreign sports'.

Severe suspensions were imposed by the GAA when 'the Ban' was broken and many a famous player suffered before it was finally swept aside back in 1971. So, it's interesting now to see the GAA banning collective training for inter-county teams, but not being concerned about soccer or rugby.


But a favourite hobby of many GAA people has always been to play a bit naughty with the rules and get away with it. Whether it's fiddling around with underage players' legality, putting through dodgy transfer forms at club level, or generally ignoring a lot of the rules, there's always a bit of a thrill in bucking the system -- even at the highest levels.

The ban on inter-county training was simply too tempting for many GAA people to resist and sure enough, over the past two winters, many schemes have been used to evade it.

Even white-collar boxing tournaments have been organised with well-known footballers taking part in legal fisticuffs, but very often this was a device which facilitated group training in November and December in the guise of getting fit.

Trial games in counties where there had never been trials before sprouted up in 2009 as another method to avoid the training ban, but the GAA soon moved to limit such games to lads who were not already on the county panel.

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Occasionally, as happened in Cavan recently, there was confusion as regards who actually had been on the county panel and the odd player or two, or six, slipped into a trial game.

Of course, the most common method of avoiding this ban was simply to ignore it and the word is that about a dozen counties have done just that.

In their own way, these players were very dedicated because the county boards involved didn't pay travelling expenses or provide steaks after training, since this was all supposed to be unofficial training and none of the county boards' business. So they got cheap training on the side -- no wonder they kept their mouths shut to Croke Park.

The only people in the GAA who seemed anxious to enforce this training ban rule were Croke Park people led by GAA president Christy Cooney and director general Paraic Duffy, who sounded very sincere about their intentions.

But the flaw in their argument was an old GAA one: no county board chairman or secretary was prepared to inform on their own team or manager. And when Cooney and others kept stating that if they received any evidence of breaches of the rule, there would be serious consequences. The president, as a cute Corkman, must surely have known that no such action would occur.

This rash decision by Congress has turned out to be a fiasco for two reasons.

Firstly, the original intention to help county players avoid burnout was dismantled from the start because those players most affected by burnout (aged 19-22) were nearly all in third-level colleges and were training at least three times per week and playing matches, which they were entitled to do in November and December.

Secondly, the training ban rule was flouted left, right and centre in all sorts of ways -- even by well-known officers at every level -- thereby making a laughing stock of the GAA and leaving the organisation open to the charge of hypocrisy.

The controversial rule should be abolished at this year's gathering of Congress and the well-intentioned committee which proposed the training ban should be reconvened in order to come up with a different method which will achieve the correct result. There's no doubt that burnout is a problem for this age group and needs to be rectified, but this is not the way to do it.