Richie Gunne (foreground) in action for St Mary's. The Clonmel club would dearly love to win a second south senior hurling title, says Westside
Covid-19 has changed everything. As we mark the first anniversary of the arrival of the cursed virus on our shores the GAA landscape has been utterly transformed, both locally and nationally. There’s simply no going back to the way we were before.
For an organisation that was traditionally noted for its slow pace of change the past year feels like a whirlwind. “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” reads a line credited to H.G. Wells. It sounds like a motto that the GAA has embraced with gusto in the face of this pandemic.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. The GAA’s response has seen old certainties set aside; the unthinkable of a few years ago has now become mainstream. And it’s the speed of the adjustment that has been so stunning.
The adoption of the split season is, arguably, the most revolutionary move by the association since its founding. That’s a big claim but I think it stands up to analysis. This is utterly transformative in how the GAA conducts its business.
For years the inter-county scene was growing like a parasite - the Japanese knotweed of the GAA - taking over the organisation and devouring its resources. It began when the knockout inter-county championship was abolished.
First the defeated provincial finalists were given a second chance, then that right was extended to all with the qualifiers. Soon we had the round robins and the Super 8s. Inter-county fixtures ballooned.
It spread to other grades. At minor level too the defeated provincial finalists were given a reprieve; then minors also got their round robin. A backdoor arrived at U21/U20 for defeated provincial finalists. Clubs were seeing less and less of their best talents.
In response to the ever-expanding inter-county programme, levels of team preparation intensified. Budgets exploded – none more so than Tipperary’s in 2019 - as backroom teams threatened to overtake player numbers. The inter-county scene was racing out of control.
The victim in all of this was the club. That parish-based, core unit of the association, the community-centred essence of GAA culture was being squeezed tighter and tighter into an ever-shrinking space. Everywhere inter-county took priority, the club left to feed off the crumbs.
This model of the association was self-defeating, so things had to change. And things were starting to change, though at a slow, torturous pace pre-Covid.
The pandemic altered everything. When the Club Players Association (CPA) recently disbanded there was an air of self-congratulations about their final bow. We’ve achieved our great ambition so there’s nothing left to do, was their departing narrative.
Actually, I was thinking of that line, “it’s the economy, stupid,” and rephrasing it to read “it’s the Covid, stupid.” The CPA had a very marginal role in events, the virus being the central player in the sea change in attitude.
Forced to split the year in 2020, the GAA community suddenly discovered that an unfettered club season, free of inter-county overlap, was a precious product.
Players and public alike revelled in the newly-discovered structure, so that this year’s motion to Congress was passed with acclaim. Just two years ago such an outcome would have been unthinkable.
The other motion passed at Congress, which has a major impact on games’ structures in Tipperary, was that which limits senior championships to sixteen teams. It’s the one most debated hereabouts because of its impact on the divisional link and the potential consequences for the Seamus O’Riain and intermediate championships.
I can understand how some vested interests want to retain the divisional connection but their case is weak. Let’s take a specific example of what we’re speaking about.
In 2017 Carrick Swans celebrated a great south victory, the last of their 23 divisional titles - they top the roll of honour. That win earned them a preliminary county quarter-final as a routeway into the Dan Breen.
They knew they were going to struggle at the higher level and, I suspect, had little appetite for what lay ahead. In the event they took a 15-point whacking from Borris-Ileigh, which served no purpose for either side.
Not a great ad for the divisional link, is it?
Listening to some of the commentary on the Congress motion you’d imagine that the divisions had been disbanded entirely. They haven’t – and won’t. In fact, divisional titles will remain a very cherished goal for many clubs.
Wouldn’t St. Mary’s dearly love to win a south title to sit alongside their only previous one from 1981? How about Upperchurch winning a first-ever mid title? Or Cashel K.C. getting back on the western bandwagon for the first time since 1995?
Divisional titles are still very desirable but the best 16 teams in the county have earned the right to be part of the Dan Breen championship and let’s not tinker with that structure anymore.
There’s been criticism that clubs weren’t properly consulted before the county voted in favour of the motion at Congress. Three points of note here. Firstly, divisional representatives were part of the decision to back the motion - and none objected.
Secondly, it would have made no difference to the outcome if Tipperary voted against the proposal, which was passed by 66% to 34%.
Thirdly, remember what happened the last time club representatives in this county exercised decision-making of any importance and introduced an U19 grade. Talk about a committee designing a horse and coming up with a camel!
But back to Congress, which was historic in that all motions won approval, although a few passed under the radar somewhat and are worth mentioning here.
Similar to the blood sub rule, Congress sanctioned the introduction of temporary substitutes for head injuries. This was in response to issues around concussion, which are so topical at the moment, especially in relation to rugby. However, the GAA version is wide open to abuse, so I expect this one to generate controversy.
Let’s be honest, the blood sub rule is shamefully abused throughout the country and nobody bothers. It should apply only where there is visible blood or an open wound, yet I’ve often seen it used for all sorts of other injuries.
Team medics often bring vials of blood with them so they can replace a player without using up their quota of substitutes. Sometimes the replacement might be a junior player coming onto a senior side but still holding his junior status.
Because there’s no time specification a blood sub can come on early in the match and stay for the duration, which is another absurdity of the system.
Likewise, the head injury rule has no time specification, which again is ridiculous. In this case abuse will be even easier because you don’t have to show blood and who’s to argue if a player claims to have taken a knock to the head.
There will be no neutral doctor to verify anything so this one is tailor-made for manipulation.
Another motion at Congress made an adjustment to the advantage rule, which we have become familiar with in recent years.
In future advantage will only be allowed for “aggressive” fouls; for all other infringements the free must be given rather than advantage. I’m afraid someone will have to explain the logic of that one to me.
The abolition of the maor foirne is a change that won’t be well received by managers. These are the runners who carry instructions from the manager to players during the course of the game; it’s a role Tommy Dunne has with Liam Sheedy.
I can appreciate both sides of the argument here. Given the size of a GAA pitch it can be difficult to deliver instructions, especially if you have thousands of baying supporters generating a noise barrier.
On the other hand the job is often abused, with endless and unnecessary incursions onto the field of play. Perhaps a more rigid enforcement of the existing rules surrounding the maor foirne would be better than an outright ban.
Finally, Congress passed a motion banning the practice of joint captains going up to receive the cup. Quite right too, this joint captain lark is a silliness that has crept into the games in recent years and needed to be sorted. Every good ship has one captain and you can have as many vice-captains as you wish.
A pity they didn’t ban the presentation speeches too; a few rare ones are memorable but the majority are cringeworthy and in recent years have developed into longwinded thank you lists.
Finally, I mentioned several weeks back about a change this year to the player insurance scheme, where from April 1 loss of wages will no longer be covered. It has been pointed out to me that the relevant cover is not an actual insurance policy but rather a support fund financed by GAA units and Croke Park.
The loss of income due to Covid is the reason given for the adjustment, whereby medical expenses will still be addressed but not wage loss.
Sean O’Shea, Carrick Swans, has led the line on this issue in a bid to encourage a rethink by Croke Park. Like any diligent secretary he has anticipated the hassle that may arise down the line. Some players will have private insurance or may be covered by their employment, but for another cohort this could be a major source of grief.
Sean O’Shea’s initiative deserves to be backed by all clubs.
For more Tipperary sport see Rachael Blackmore makes history in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham