Saturday 16 December 2017

Summer of grinds ahead in footballing transition year

Gavin Duffy, Connacht, with his daughter Jessica, age 2, after he played his last home match for Connacht
Gavin Duffy, Connacht, with his daughter Jessica, age 2, after he played his last home match for Connacht

Tommy Conlon

No one in Mayo is calling off the epic search for a marquee forward just yet, but a marquee player of sorts has arrived this week and it's an intriguing development.

Status in sport is all relative of course. Gavin Duffy will not go down as a marquee player in the annals of Irish rugby. But he played 10 times for his country and an Ireland international returning to play Gaelic football for his native county makes him a marquee sportsman among his new colleagues.

Naturally enough, he will still have to prove himself on the training ground and earn his place in the dressing room. But in this kind of scenario a lot depends on the attitude of both parties: the newcomer and the established group.

Teams don't always take kindly to the sudden arrival in their midst of a star signing with an unorthodox background and an unproven pedigree in their chosen sport. If he hasn't come through the same route as they, with a shared history of experiences, he may be treated as an outsider within their tightly-knit community.

The onus will be on him, not just to prove his ability, but to make the all-important personal connections too. It takes a certain type of character to ignore the residual suspicion and achieve acceptance. It will help if he is a warm, confident and good-humoured type.

But not too confident either, obviously; the merest hint of cockiness will mean social death off the field and serial non-performance on it. The transplant won't take, the experiment won't survive. The lad will be packing his bags.

In Duffy's case, the cultural gap should not be as problematic. He is a native of Ballina and was a standout player with a standout Mayo minor team that reached the 1999 All-Ireland final.

Then he embarked on the rugby career which only ended earlier this month at the age of 32, and after 293 first-class games. He made his Ireland debut against South Africa in Cape Town in 2004. He spent four seasons with Harlequins in London before returning to Connacht where his rugby apprenticeship had begun. In March they told him his contract would not be renewed.

Based in Galway, he is married with one child and another on the way in June. "Perfect timing," he wryly remarked to The Sunday Times last weekend. "I've a wife and two babies and I'm unemployed." Which puts him in the same boat as a fair few other GAA players up and down the country.

Duffy is by all accounts an affable bloke and, in the parlance, a good pro who took his work seriously and commanded respect.

Those who know him say he will bring positive energy and good vibes generally to the Mayo camp. He will bring too the authority and knowledge of someone who has lived the life of the professional athlete.

All in all, it's hard to see a downside, and it may well prove to be a small but inspired move by James Horan, the Mayo manager.

Someone inside the camp however might find it easier to see a downside. A player, that is, fighting for game time who has put in the hard yards last winter and spring, and who may have done so for a number of years now.

But them's the breaks. Easy for us to say, of course, but the essence of all sport is competition, and sometimes the next obstacle can arrive from an entirely unforeseen direction. Duffy hasn't paid his dues with Mayo; but he's paid them in the much more unforgiving milieu of professional rugby. He spent most of his career buried somewhere in the middle of the pyramid and not at the top, where the serious money and the lasting glory is located.

And the whole idea is something of a flier anyway, a bit of a long shot. It's been a sporting lifetime since he last navigated his way around a GAA field, or took a shot at the posts from 35 yards out at an awkward angle.

The Gaelic football muscle memory acquired as a teenager has long been submerged. The software in his brain has been heavily overwritten by rugby's patterns and codes. He has to unlearn years of habits and re-train his neural pathways for skills as basic as handling a round ball, kicking it, reading space, anticipating moves and

making the right decisions. And he has to do it all in double-quick time.

It is hard to see him, for example, being able to function with his back to the opponents' goal. He has spent his adult career facing the opponents' goal, receiving possession and not having to figure out how to turn a defender marking him closely from behind.

Then there is the sheer scale of a Gaelic football field, and the bewildering speed of top-level championship action: space and pace enough to daunt any 32-year-old. Gavin Duffy is going back to do his Leaving Cert, not having opened a book for nigh on 14 years.

It's a courageous move, by player and management. The chances are that the experiment will run into the concrete wall of implacable competitive reality.

But getting to wear the green of Ireland was for him the fulfilment of a childhood dream. It might just be too romantic to expect he can help the Mayo players fulfil theirs; but it's surely a punt worth taking.

Sunday Indo Sport

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