How Dublin and Wexford escaped training camp bans and how GAA are closing loopholes
Tighter controls around pre-championship training camps are on the way after the shambles of last year when some counties were punished for breaking the rules while others escaped, despite their cases appearing similar.
Next month's GAA Congress will consider new provisions, designed to avoid a repetition of what happened last summer when only three of the counties investigated were ultimately sanctioned.
Dublin (football) and Wexford (hurling) were among those who escaped, despite undertaking high-profile overseas trips.
Armagh (football), Waterford and Laois (hurling) have all lost home advantage for one Allianz League game this season as a penalty for breaking the rule, which precludes inter-county panels from embarking on training weekends outside a ten-day period prior to a championship game.
The rule was introduced with April/early May mostly in mind and aims to boost local activity by having inter-county players available to their clubs. April is now designated as an inter-county-free month.
The GAA's Management Committee intervened after reports of several breaches last year and while 17 counties were investigated, Armagh, Waterford, Laois and Wexford the only four deemed to have a case to answer.
Wexford were later cleared after arguing successfully that their trip to Portugal in April had been organised by the players for 'recreational' purposes only and did not involve the county board either in an organisational or financial sense.
The players insisted that they didn't train and since no evidence to the contrary could be produced, punishment was avoided.
Dublin also faced investigation following the All-Ireland football champions' trip to France and Belgium in early May, but were not sanctioned after explaining that the trip involved only one night away and did not include training.
Their players later spoke about visiting war memorials, while their Wexford hurling counterparts insisted that their trip was nothing more than a pre-championship break, designed to bond the squad.
"No, there wasn't any training at all. More so, it was going around and visiting these different places," said Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny.
Despite their first Leinster game coming up a few weeks later, Wexford joint-captain Lee Chin insisted their trip was strictly fun only.
"We just wanted to relax in each other's company and that's what we went out and did. We did not train once out there," he said.
There was widespread scepticism about the Wexford and Dublin explanations - and indeed in other cases as well - but a vaguely-worded rule left the investigating committee with no option but to accept them. The rule has since been examined and a tighter version will go before Congress next month. In particular, clear definitions will be included as the current rule is unacceptably ambiguous.
It reads: "Senior inter-county panels shall not be permitted to go on training weekends, or training of longer duration, after the final of their respective National League having been played, except during the 10 days period prior to a senior championship game, or during the 17 days prior to an All-Ireland senior final."
It's also expected that counties will have to apply to Croke Park, even if they plan to undertake only one night away in the period covered by the rule. The existing wording refers to a 'training weekend', but since neither 'training' nor 'weekend' are clearly defined, it's impossible make a charge stick.
"If we acted against Wexford and Dublin and they launched an appeal, it would have been all but impossible to make it stick because the rule is not specific enough - that was the problem last year," said a GAA source. Ironically, the rule was amended in September 2017 as the previous version carried no punishment for violation.
The new wording will be much more specific, but whether it can ever be tight enough to snare counties not prepared to abide by the spirit of the rule remains to be seen.
Laois and Waterford both attempted to have last year's sanction lifted but were not successful.
Consequently, Laois footballers have lost home advantage for their Division 3 game against Louth on February 2. It will be played in Croke Park while Waterford hurlers must travel to Thurles for their 1B meeting with Offaly on January 27.
Armagh footballers have lost home advantage for their Division 2 clash with Clare on February 3, which will now be played in Newry.
Armagh, Laois and Waterford are angry over being the only ones punished, believing that several others escaped by not presenting the full story to the committee.
Ulster CEO Brian McAvoy backs that view in his annual report, noting that it's easy to understand the annoyance felt by the three punished counties. He is particularly sympathetic towards Armagh.
"Potential breaches were investigated but just four were hit with sanctions. One of those was rescinded following a hearing. It beggars believe that only three counties were found to have breached the rule.
"Armagh will no doubt believe, and with just justification, that they have been penalised for telling the truth. Surely, clear guidelines need to be put in place to define 'collective training' as the whole process has left everyone confused and Armagh feeling justifiably angry," stated McAvoy.