Tuesday 21 January 2020

While the players get bulkier, GAA is more fleet-footed at change

Lee Keegan gets to grips with Diarmuid Connelly Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Lee Keegan gets to grips with Diarmuid Connelly Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Gerard O'Regan

Some of us can hardly wait for a renewed outbreak of tactical hostilities today between Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly.

In the drawn All-Ireland final, there was plenty of what's euphemistically called 'off-the-ball stuff' between these two warriors, respectively representing Mayo and Dublin in their battle for All-Ireland glory.

The image of Keegan holding on to Connolly's jersey as if his very life depended on it will remain one of the enduring images of Irish sport in 2016. It surely marked a coming of age for a county whose footballers have been accused of 'bottling it' on countless occasions in the past.

Connolly's obvious physicality, born of innate sporting ability and plenty of structured gym work, embodies much of what this current Dublin team is all about. Spearheaded by a manager who clearly insists on a disciplined strategy redolent of his own military training, it has developed into a unit of imposing presence on the playing pitch. It's interesting that Keegan, at first glance, does not seem a match for the more heavily built Connolly. But it cannot be forgotten he was a nifty rugby player in his youth - flirting with the Connacht Academy. At one point pursuing a career in the oval ball game was a possibility. In any case, his visible upper-body strength is testament to a focused training regime during those early years.

But regardless of the result of today's replay, in the drawn game Mayo stood toe-to-toe with the Dublin boys, and in the physicality stakes certainly gave as good as they got. In that sense, they shattered the consensus that the all-conquering Boys in Blue would dominate the sport for a number of years to come.

If, in addition to this aggression, Mayo match their opponents in the skill stakes this afternoon, it is they who will be bringing home Sam Maguire. Such a result would also prove once again that predicting what will happen in sport is more hazardous than the even more dubious activity of economic forecasting.

Overall, this titanic struggle to become the number one team in the country focuses attention on just how important physical conditioning has become in Gaelic football. Skill on the ball is one thing - but even the most adroit forward really needs to be able to take care of himself when confronted by some of the tough guys now playing.

However, what's happening in Gaelic football cannot be taken in isolation from trends affecting other major field sports. When it comes to average player size, rugby has obviously transformed itself in the course of two decades. Reruns on TV of matches played, say, 20 years ago show just how diminutive top players of that time were compared to the stars of the modern game. Indeed, the sheer size and bulk of some of the young rugby talent currently representing Ireland suggests this drive for more and more strength on the field is now an unstoppable force.

Gaelic football is, of course, a very different sport to rugby. But the battle to be bigger and stronger than the opposition has reached new levels, particularly among the top teams. Where it will end is difficult to predict.

Meanwhile, another backdrop to the current state of the game is the almost unmentionable subject of professionalism. The amateur status of players, forced to spend more and more time in the gym while partaking in various fitness regimes in a never-ending quest to perform at ever higher levels, remains a simmering point of controversy. There is some truth in the popular view that it is only third-level students and those holding down a job with plenty of time off, such as teaching, who can really afford the time to play with the more successful county sides.

This in turn periodically gives rise to the old 'pay for play' debate. Much water has gone under many bridges since back in the 1980s when the Kerry manager, Mick O'Dwyer, got himself into a whole heap of trouble with the powers that be. And it was all because of a relatively innocent advertising ploy involving a washing machine. O'Dwyer wanted to raise some cash to fund a foreign junket which he intended as a reward for a bunch of amateur sportsmen who over a number of seasons had given much of their waking hours to the sport.

Since then there have been various skirmishes between the GAA's inner sanctum and players on the professionalism issue. This week's decision by Dessie Farrell, to step down as head of the Gaelic Players Association, may emerge as another watershed in a matter which continues to bubble beneath the surface. But an organisation so dependent on voluntarism has to tread carefully. Events in Irish amateur boxing some months ago show the enmity that can be caused when some people are well paid and others not so much so - a reminder that money and sport can be a toxic mix.

Yet the GAA, for all its detractors, has shown itself in recent years to be an organisation that can be nimble and fleet of foot when embracing change. It has come a long way from those times when it was hamstrung by a kind of inward-looking muscular nationalism. As Irish society has matured and become more engaged with the outside world, so also has the most influential sporting institution on the island. Somewhat akin to the country itself, it is now more at ease with itself than at any period in its chequered history.

But today is not the time for all these musings. Instead let this bone-rattling battle in Croke Park begin - and let us savour it!

Irish Independent

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