Tuesday 13 November 2018

Lots of eastern promise in GAA project for Asia

Conor Whelan in action against James Barry and Pauric Mahony at the Singapore Recreation Club during the All Stars’ visit earlier this month. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Conor Whelan in action against James Barry and Pauric Mahony at the Singapore Recreation Club during the All Stars’ visit earlier this month. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

The lightning strikes in the distance made for a spectacular backdrop to the climax of the Fexco Asian Gaelic Games, but for the organisers of the competition it made for one last challenge.

To that point, the 22nd staging of the tournament had gone off without so much as a ripple in the schedule, but the lightning strikes brought one more challenge for the organisers, who, with the weather closing in, squeezed the remaining games into a tighter window.

Considering what the Asian County Board and hosts Thailand GAA had managed up to that point, it was never going to upset things unduly.

With significant action on three different continents, that weekend in November had been a hectic one for the GAA globally. Joe Kernan's International Rules side were battling it out with Australia in Perth, while the Super 11s hurling tournament was getting its second airing at Boston's Fenway Park.

Teams line out at this year’s Asian Games which featured an all Thai-born side.
Teams line out at this year’s Asian Games which featured an all Thai-born side.

Perhaps the real success story, though, was happening in Bangkok.

In all, more than 750 players took part in three venues across the city in what was a remarkable triumph in logistics.

Teams from places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Japan took part in 14 competitions at various levels. Hurling, football and camogie were all catered for in nine-a-side games in the sweltering heat of the Thai capital.

There was a sprinkling of stardust there as well. Former Footballer of the Year Bernard Brogan (Dublin), Mayo All-Star Colm Boyle and 11-time Cork All-Ireland winner Bríd Stack were on hand to help out. It was clear that the Asian games had come a long way since a handful of teams gathered for the inaugural tournament in Manila in 1996. It's now more than 10 times bigger in terms of participation and the GAA in Asia has big plans.

Around 15pc of the players in action over the weekend hailed from outside Ireland. And for the first time, this year's tournament featured an all Thai-born team who played in an exhibition game against an International selection.

It was a small gesture, but it was a significant one.

Motion

Derry native Joe Trolan is the Asian County Board chairman. He's a lecturer in Hankuk University in Seoul, but could just as easily have ended up in Vermont after he was offered a job there. In the end, Korea got the nod "because there was a GAA club there" and it set in motion a series of events that led to his appointment as chairman in Asia.

Along with a few others, such as Paraic McGrath - son of former Mayo chairman and 1982 All-Ireland football final referee PJ - Peter Ryan, Pat Gotham, Noel Lennon, John Campbell, Derek Cahill and others, they have established a remarkable GAA unit that survives and thrives despite the transient nature of the expat community that it pulls from.

The Asian County Board are simultaneously like every other board in the GAA and yet totally different.

At a meeting before the start of the weekend's action, they busied themselves with the business that any board would. Access to pitches and the huge cost of renting them was a concern.

Defibrillators, and people who are trained to use them, was highlighted as a worry. With smaller numbers to pull from, they have to be creative. It was decided that as part of their referee training, match officials should be up to speed on how to use the device.

"It can be difficult to get administrators," Trolan explained.

"A lot of people come out and they are only here for a year or two and they just want to play the games and have some fun, so we have to try and work around that."

Still, they think big. The Asian Games are the showpiece of the year and it is big enough now to stand on its own two feet.

For Asia, the future lies in their underage set-ups. There has been youth teams in the likes of Vietnam and Singapore for the best part of the decade now and that has spread across the continent.

They have ran their Youth Championships for two years now and have plans to enter a team into Féile in the coming years.

That might seem fanciful, but there is significant groundwork being laid. Recently, Gaelic games made it on to the curriculum in Hong Kong and it's hoped that will be repeated elsewhere.

Various Asian clubs applied for funding through the Department of Foreign Affairs and the GAA and of the 14 successful applications Trolan reckons that 11 were related to the development of underage structures in various cities and regions.

The International schools across the continent have been open to welcoming the GAA, but more recently they have gotten into some local schools.

"At first some of the locals were hesitant," Trolan explained.

"Parents obviously didn't know what it was, but we have found that when they are exposed to it they love it. And that's for two reasons. One it's because girls and boys can play together, which isn't always the case. And two, it's a free English lesson. They like that their kids are being spoken to and coached by a native English speaker.

"When they get older they tend to go off and play more established sports, but we're trying to change that as much as we can."

The GAA has been well received in these parts. The Asian games tournament was headquartered in the Patana International School, one of the most prestigious education establishments in Thailand.

Given the travel involved, it's not cheap to play GAA in Asia, but the appeal remains strong. In all, 56 teams from places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Japan took part in 14 competitions at various levels in Bangkok.

The Asian County Board have been able to attract sponsors to help offset the significant cost of hosting the tournament. Fexco are title sponsors, but the likes of Silverhill Foods and First Derivatives are also involved.

"Sometimes we have people who work for the company and they get them involved, but for the most part they see it as a good connection into Asia and it helps them get into the markets here," said Trolan.

"For example, in China, they don't want to see you coming in and grabbing money and leaving. If you show them that you have interests here and that you are involved in something, it helps."

"We also get support from Croke Park. As we always say, we could use more, but we put that money towards offsetting the costs as much as possible."

The planning for the 23rd Asian Games will start in earnest in the new year when it is likely to return to Bangkok. The plan is to be bigger and better.

"This year was great. Certainly one of the best I have been at in terms of the size and the quality of games and the social aspect of it.

"The Thai GAA lads did a great job of pulling it all together. We'll take a bit of time now, but in January we'll get together and have chat to see what we can make better."

Irish Independent

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