Monday 18 December 2017

John O'Brien: Surgery required, not more plasters

John O'Brien

The general confusion that prevailed as the full-time whistle blew in Carrick-on-Shannon last Sunday wasn't all that surprising. One radio commentary team began setting the scene for the extra-time required to settle the stalemate that existed between Leitrim and London. When that mistaken notion was corrected, people immediately switched their attention to the anticipated replay in Ruislip this weekend before realising their mistake on that front too.

Ultimately, as it transpired, a special arrangement was in place for London to play all their first-round games in Connacht at home and retain the gate receipts while forfeiting home advantage for the remainder of the championship. It was also pointed out that extra-time existed for quarter-final ties but not for semi-final games, although the purpose of this seemingly arbitrary distinction wasn't made fully clear.

This explanation didn't mollify those who complained bitterly that in depriving London of a home tie, the GAA was not merely failing one of the weakest teams in the championship but depriving us all of the novelty and marketing value of a rare big day out in Ruislip. The entire episode smacked of unfairness, another illustration of the have-nots being kept firmly in their place, although Leitrim's implied status as overlords must have felt slightly odd to them.

That none of those complaints emanated from the London camp or their manager Paul Coggins (pictured) was good to hear, a hopeful sign that they were determined to keep their heads down and take care of business. The same could be said for Galway minor manager John Donnellan who was entitled to be furious when the home Connacht semi-final tie he expected against Mayo yesterday suddenly became a neutral affair in Hyde Park to form a double-header with today's replay.

There's nothing fair about that either. Donnellan made the point that Galway had played four of their five league games this year away from home and still won the competition. Like any good manager, he was turning a negative into a positive. Next week Tipperary travel to Killarney to play Kerry seeking their third Munster minor football title in succession. Why Killarney? Because that is where the senior final is being held this year.

Perhaps nobody complains about these things anymore because this is how they expect it to work. It's the championship, stupid, an unwieldy beast stretched out over months where some teams get breaks of up to five weeks' duration while others are wheeled out on successive weekends. Inequities abound. Forever to be talked about, forever to be forgotten. The Dubs and home advantage in Croke Park? Time for a fresh debate, perhaps. Must be a week since the last one.

The problem here isn't unfairness, of course. It is the lack of coherency that exists between the various competition structures, the unholy mess, frankly, that is the GAA's annual fixtures calendar. Fix the fixtures, it is often said, and you go a long way to sorting other problems that confront the Association such as player burnout and the friction that exists between club and county. There is no ingrained desire to be radical, though, and so a few sticking plasters are applied that only temporarily stem the bleeding.

The minor grade is a good illustration here. Not necessarily to pick on Munster but this week a Kerry GAA committee released interim findings of a survey that showed an alarming disparity between the activity of county minor players and those only involved at club and school level. In one case a county player had played 25 games and conducted 86 gym sessions during one 90-day period. The club players were virtually inactive by comparison.

None of this is surprising. When the Kerry minors face Tipperary next week, they will be playing their fifth game in Munster this year, the same number they played in 2012 when they lost twice to Tipp and still progressed further in the All-Ireland championship. So it goes. Consider their club and school commitments and the fact many of them are undergoing the most stressful year of their lives and it seems needlessly elongated.

For Tipperary, the good news is that in winning the last two Munster titles, and an All-Ireland in 2011, they have sauntered through the province playing a relatively scant three games each time. But that overlooks the critical fact that up to half of the Tipp football team are dual players. Of the team that won last year's All-Ireland minor hurling title, for instance, 10 of the squad were also footballers. Imagine the pressure some of them will experience over the next few years.

It's just seven years since the GAA produced a detailed report on player burnout and and some of the measures subsequently implemented unquestionably helped alleviate the problems but, as the Kerry County Board reminded us this week, it will always be a recurring issue. Just like teams getting bum deals when it comes to venues. Or the Dubs in Croke Park. Or a thousand other idiosyncrasies. They are all essentially a part of the same malady.

The entire edifice reeks of unfairness and inconsistency. It needs to be torn down and built again from scratch. But who imagines we will ever see such a radical approach in our own lifetimes?

Morris rises right on cue

Anyone who has followed the career of Davy Morris, a 24-year-old snooker player from Kilkenny, will know he is one of the brightest talents the game has ever produced here, but has struggled to make a significant breakthrough in the professional ranks. So it was a welcome boost to Morris when he made the quarter-finals of the Wuxi Classic in China last week before bowing out 5-2 to world No 12 Matthew Stevens.

Morris's fine run in China was timely because it suggested the declining fortunes of Irish snooker, after the heyday of Ken Doherty and Fergal O'Brien, may not be as irreversible as many feared. The relative scarcity of successful Irish players is odd when you consider that snooker is a cheap indoor sport, not prone to the vagaries of climate and, prior to the explosion of Chinese interest anyway, largely confined to this part of the western world.

Davy Morris won't change that, of course, but against tough odds and a lack of support and interest, you merely hope he can go as far as his talent merits.

Irish Independent

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