Monday 11 December 2017

Spirit of reform fizzles out as free-to-air plan is rejected

No change of dates for All-Ireland finals after GAA motions rejected by county delegates

Motion 7 that the All-Ireland finals be moved forward two weeks did not get the required two-thirds support at Congres yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Motion 7 that the All-Ireland finals be moved forward two weeks did not get the required two-thirds support at Congres yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Dermot Crowe

After the spirit of reform at GAA Congress in Carlow on Friday night, yesterday's resumption of business found delegates less forthcoming. A number of motions aimed at improving the welfare of club players were defeated, while a bid to have all televised inter-county championship games made free-to-air shipped a heavy beating, picking up only 15 per cent support.

Overall, it was a mixed afternoon, with Páraic Duffy, the GAA's director-general, appealing in vain to delegates to back the changes he felt needed to improve the welfare of club players - the biggest issue currently facing the GAA, he revealed.

A number of speakers outlined the routine difficulties encountered by club players because of the pressures inter-county schedules are having on domestic programmes.

But Central Council motions seeking to condense the inter-county season by two weeks, and reducing the number of replays, were both unsuccessful.

Delegates were more adventurous in agreeing on Friday to scrap the under-21 football inter-county championship, replacing it with an under-20 model, to help alleviate player burnout. Club football, or inter-county and club hurling, will not be affected. The inter-county minor football and hurling grade's maximum age was reduced from 18 to 17, with players from 15-17 eligible, and from 14-18 at club level. These changes take effect on January 1, 2018.

In a significant move the mark, with certain restrictions, will be introduced in Gaelic football. It means that a player who catches the ball cleanly from a kick-out, on or past the 45-metre line, shall be entitled to call a mark and have five seconds to move the ball on. Other players must be at least 10 metres away from the kicker. If a player fails to offload within five seconds a throw-in will be awarded.

Jarlath Burns, proposing the motion on behalf of a committee on playing rules, said the mark would help protect the skill from extinction. Diarmuid O'Donovan, part of the Cork delegation, said that all playing rule changes going back to the 1970s were introduced with the intention of speeding up the game. He felt the mark would slow it down and proposed it be examined in a trial. Burns said it had been trialled already in the National League. After a vote the motion passed with 68 per cent of the vote, just over the two-thirds required.

There was strong opposition to a motion from Dublin to make all televised championship games free-to-air, in contravention of the last broadcasting rights deal the GAA agreed with Sky. The result means that subscription channels are free to bid for GAA championship match TV rights when the next round of negotiations begins shortly.

Not "tying the hands" of the GAA during those upcoming negotiations by reducing the number of bidders was a central plank of most arguments against the motion. Dublin, proposing, said that the denial of free-to-air service discriminated against GAA members and impacted on the elderly and less well-off.

Opposing, former GAA president Nickey Brennan said that €11m is secured by the GAA in television rights and that this was approximately the amount spent annually on coaching and games development. He, and others, asked that the delegates trust the GAA's main decision-makers to act in the best interests of the GAA. In a vote, the motion only gained 15.3 per cent support.

On Friday night, the controversial motion looking to introduce an All-Ireland 'B' football championship made up of teams in Division 4 was withdrawn. The proposal, following extensive consultations and submissions on restructuring the championship, had been roundly condemned, with players threatening to boycott it if it were approved.

A motion from Clare asking that the GAA agree to have non-GAA sports played at county grounds, following the decision some years ago to allow Croke Park open its doors, was well beaten, with 76.5 per cent rejecting it.

Lively debate attended motions on moving the All-Ireland hurling and football final dates forward by two weeks, to relieve pressure on club fixtures. Although 60.8 per cent were in support, it was short of the two-thirds minimum needed.

"The current inter-county system runs for nine months and means it is virtually impossible to run meaningful games for club players which we are told account for 98 per cent of the playing population," said Dublin's John Costello.

Tracey Kennedy, a Cork delegate, and Noel Tracy of Galway both spoke against the proposed reform.

"We are handing the month of September to other sports," stated Kennedy. She argued that condensing the inter-county championship would put greater pressure on club fixtures during the summer.

"If we pass this motion then it is inevitable our club championships will become a winter event."

Niall Erskine, a GAA trustee from Donegal, argued that the inter-county season ran for 33 and the motion only sought a reduction to 31. "That reduction is aimed at assisting the fixtures planners who are co-ordinating club activities for 98 per cent of our players," he said.

Páraic Duffy referred to a document finding from 2001 showing that the length of the inter-county season was one of the major impediments for club fixture planners.

"It is about looking for better balance. At the moment everything favours the inter-county competitions," he said.

The same fate befell a motion seeking to confine replays to All-Ireland finals and provincial finals only, introducing extra-time as an obligatory measure to recede the number of replays. The debate divided between concerns for the club players having their schedules disrupted by inter-county replays and fears of a loss of revenue.

In a strong opposition argument, Cork's Frank Murphy argued that the impact on clubs was a "selective and simplistic" argument. "An odd draw in an inter-county game should not cause major disruption," he said, and added that Central Council and provincial councils were not tackling counties neglecting their club championships in favour of county teams.

Duffy said the revenue issue was overblown as it was a small percentage of overall income. But just 57.5 per cent of delegates supported the Central Council motion.

Earlier 95.1 per cent voted in favour of a motion which will enable the release of county players outside the official panel of 26 to their clubs on the weekend of National League and championship games. It will take effect from January 1, 2017.

A successful Antrim motion will see the winners of the Christy Ring Cup take part in the MacCarthy Cup in the same season. It takes effect in 2017 and it is intended that the team concerned will enter at the Leinster quarter-final stage. This raised an objection later from Frank Murphy on the grounds that a motion had earlier been passed supporting the current hurling championship structure to remain unaltered.

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