Sport Hurling

Sunday 19 November 2017

Gaeldom not ready for zero-tolerance stance on thuggery

The GAA must realise that harsh punishments are the best deterrent of all, says John O'Brien

NO amount of bleating about the injustice meted out to Stephen Ferris and his team in the dying moments of last week's Six Nations opener can change the fact that rugby is to be applauded for its intent to eradicate dangerous play from the sport.

It was harsh on Ireland, a shot at a Triple Crown or Grand Slam arguably thieved at first base, and nobody with a vested interest or a simple love of sport could feel happy about it.

Still, you could look at Ferris's challenge on Welsh lock Ian Evans another way.

If not illegal it was, at least, a borderline tackle and when your team is defending a precarious one-point lead with the clock running down, maybe it was no time to be taking risks, however unlucky Ferris was to be penalised. Rugby, like most sports, is prone to the whims and flaws of match officials and that, clearly, is unfortunate.

Yet there is a critical point to be made here. Remember how horrified we were when Brian O'Driscoll's 2005 Lions tour was sabotaged by an appalling spear tackle or when Luke Fitzgerald was a victim of eye-gouging in South Africa four years later. The only way to stop it, we argued, was by implementing a zero-tolerance policy towards violence and getting tough on the perpetrators. And if that inevitably leads to the odd miscarriage of justice, maybe that was an acceptable price to pay for cleaning up the game.

Is there anything the GAA can learn here? Indisputably, yes. Let's not repeat the trite claim that the GAA should look to other sports for moral guidance. There's as little value in suggesting the GAA should learn from other codes as there is in the whataboutery that predictably followed the ugly scenes that marred Derrytresk's victory over Dromid Pearses in last month's All-Ireland junior club semi-final in Portlaoise. There's a principle at stake, however, that the GAA needs to apply if it wants to tackle the scourge of violence in a meaningful way.

The sense of outrage in Derrytresk last week was palpable. Seen as the chief culprits in Portlaoise, the small Co Tyrone club bore the brunt of the punishment and, on appeal, got their best player back for today's All-Ireland final against Clonbur but shipped further penalties into the bargain. And while it's easy to feel sympathy, it's also valid to argue that, if exact justice couldn't be applied, then perhaps it was no bad thing if the penalties imposed erred on the side of harshness.

Because the alternative, if we're honest, was the classic GAA fudge. As intense as the media spotlight has been, how much confidence really existed that the Association would come down hard on the clubs involved? Even now that they have, that confidence remains frail. On Radio One on Thursday Tom Carr considered the penalties imposed by the Central Hearings Committee and, with so many avenues left to pursue, doubted whether they'd stick. "Watch this space," he said.

There's a certain weariness evident here that the GAA can make all the noise it wants about getting tough, seek to impose ever-harsher penalties as a deterrent and still clubs and counties, sufficiently cute and determined, will ultimately wear it down through the rigmarole of the disciplinary process until you are left with a situation where nothing is ever likely to change.

In this instance any satisfactory resolution was rendered virtually impossible by an unhelpful context that clouded the issue from the outset. It has to be said that both Dromid Pearses and Dr Crokes contributed in no small way to this. But the Portlaoise brawl hadn't yet become a YouTube sensation when Pat Darcy, former chairman of the Tyrone County Board, sounded a gentle warning to others to "look in your own backyard."

That set the tone of the debate that followed. North against south. Us against them. For Derrytresk, subconsciously at least, two possible avenues opened up. Either they would escape relatively lightly, as they hoped, or they would be victims of rough GAA justice, egged on by a distinct anti-northern bias in the media. All week they have been playing the victim card.

Whatever their sense of injustice, the perceived anti-northern bias of the southern media is easily shredded. The outstanding contribution Ulster has made to Gaelic football over the past decade and more has been generously documented down south and isn't it rather telling that Mickey Harte, Joe Kernan and Oisín McConville all enlisted the help of southern GAA writers when composing their autobiographies? Surely Ulster GAA folk aren't so naive as to think Pat Spillane speaks for everybody down south?

What hurt Derrytresk most of all, and earned widespread sympathy, was the ruling that bans them from the provincial and All-Ireland series for five years. Why punish underage players, it was argued, who had no hand or part in the Portlaoise brawl? To which the CHC might reply that it wasn't its members who jumped over the hoarding and contributed most to the disgraceful scenes that followed. Remove the five-year ban and where's the severity in the punishment? Where's the potential deterrent for other teams?

Then there is the obvious anomaly in Derrytresk being banned for five years and yet still allowed to contest today's final. There you had your fudge. If, after sifting through the evidence, the CHC saw fit to impose such a ban then, surely, it was duty-bound to go further and disqualify the club from this year's competition. Derrytresk might feel lucky to have escaped such a fate, but the club wants more than that. So much more.

And so, north and south, we'll likely rumble on for some time yet. The GAA simply isn't ready for the zero-tolerance approach and, when this business is finally done, you'll probably be left wondering if it will ever be.

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