The last weekend of June was supposed to be a momentous weekend for Irish sport.
Ireland were going to clinch their first ever win over the Springboks and win the Junior World Cup in the rugby, they were going to eliminate host nation France at Euro 2016 in the football, and Meath were going to give it to Dublin in Croke Park and deny Jim Gavin’s side a sixth straight Leinster final appearance.
It was fitting that our best chance of success actually ran in chronological order, with the rugby team playing first, as the degree of difficulty and the odds ramped up in every game thereafter, but ultimately the status quo remained the same.
Irish rugby once again fell agonisingly short of achieving something historic, the football team were finally outclassed after defying the odds on countless occasions, and in the GAA, Dublin advanced to their 10th Leinster final in the last 11 years after a crushing 14 point win over Meath in Croke Park.
As I sat in the Davin Stand still processing Ireland’s defeat, I watched Meath capitulate before my eyes and I couldn’t help but wonder how the likes of Bernard Brogan or Diarmuid Connolly would’ve fared if they were guided towards football instead of Gaelic.
Both players are powerful athletes who are highly skilled individuals and technically gifted off both feet, but surely if they never picked up a Gaelic football and they played association football from an early age, their skills and athleticism would surely translate to the 11-a-side game as opposed to the 15-a-side one.
But, it never happened that way and Dublin supporters are eternally grateful for it, as the duo have played an instrumental part in Dublin’s success over the course of this decade.
The pair have helped spearhead a well-oiled machine that has achieved an unprecedented amount of success and it’s not them the GAA should be worried about in the future, it’s the Niall Ronans, the Robbie Henshaws and the Rob Kearneys of this world.
All three played minor football for Meath, Westmeath and Louth respectively before carving out careers in professional rugby and all three would go onto represent Ireland internationally.
Henshaw and Kearney are current Ireland internationals while Ronan won two Heineken Cups during an 11-year professional career with both Leinster and Munster.
The Meath native told the Irish Examiner last year that he longed to get back to Croke Park a third time as a coach, after forgettable experiences there as a player.
“I played twice in Croke Park,” Ronan told the Examiner. “I played for Meath minors against Dublin and got hammered by 10 points (in 2000). I had a stinker, was brutal. And I came off the bench for Munster against Leinster (in the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009) so hopefully it will be third time lucky in the Christy Ring if we get there.”
Ronan never got back to Croker but his comments on Meath being hammered by Dublin still hold true 16 years later. The Dubs are still hammering Meath but they are also now steamrolling their way to Leinster, National League and All-Ireland titles.
The GAA shouldn’t be worried about the Bernard Brogans and the Diarmuid Connollys of the future, who are being brought up in a culture of success, professionalism and winning, they should be worried about the players who aren’t; the players Tomás Ó Sé is referring to in his column with the Irish Independent.
“Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to depict the county man’s life today as life in a prison camp,” Ó Sé noted in his column.
“I know there’s great banter in most dressing-rooms, successful or not. But everything now is analysis, core-work, strength and conditioning, personal programmes, monitoring your diet. The game eats into every aspect of a player’s life, taking up more and more of his time. And, in my opinion, we’re treading very dangerously here.”
It’s the commitment and dedication you need to achieve in professional sport but this is not professional sport we’re talking about here, this is the GAA, one of the pillars of Irish society.
It’s been said that in western societies that in order for structure and sanity to be maintained, the pillars of Church and State must successfully co-exist. In Ireland this has been the case for centuries but the GAA is the unmentioned third pillar, the pivotal part of Irish society that bangs community and togetherness on one solitary drum.
But, like the church, the GAA finds itself in this new world where it must adapt as the climate has changed and the circumstances are now inherently different. The Association exists in this brave new world where there a few professional set-ups in which the overwhelming majority of counties try to emulate but, ultimately, can never replicate as they don’t have the same resources, finances, playing numbers or personnel.
It is a situation that Ó Sé increasingly fears and one that he envisions only getting worse if nothing is changed.
“My worry is that this is only going to get worse,” Ó Sé added.
“We’re certainly not seeing all the best footballers in the country out on the field today because the game is burning a lot of young lads away, especially in the weaker counties.
“It means the gap is getting bigger and bigger. Everyone’s trying to set the same standards when it’s probably just not feasible.”
But what if instead of those players burning away they were offered different opportunities? What if they were offered the chance at annual success in rugby and football instead of hoping for their once-in-a-career ‘Buster Douglas moment’ in the GAA.
Those within GAA circles will say ‘they do it for the love of the game, their parish and their county’ and they do. I’ve spoken to club players who have told me that they’d come back from their ACL injury early if their club made it to a county final, because they want to be involved. They want to experience that moment that they’ve been longing for their entire lives and some want it more than others, maybe even to a fault.
But what about the county players? The players who take encouragement from the Offalys, Galways and Downs of years gone by, but who are also fully aware that the All-Ireland Football Championship has been contested by just four teams over the last five years.
The gap is constantly widening and it won’t be narrowed by the fact that the FAI has just had its most successful on-field year this century, and Irish rugby is more diversified than ever, with players from all over the country, and the world for that matter, in their current squad.
English and Scottish football clubs have had scouts all over Ireland for decades now and there are quite a number of current GAA players who have had trials or been in talks with Premier League clubs in the past. But the Kevin Morans and the Shane Longs are now also ever increasingly becoming the Rob Kearneys, the Simon Zebos and the Robbie Henshaws.
Rugby academies from around the country are targeting GAA players in the hope that their natural skill set and athleticism will cross over to a different 15-man game, one which can be lucrative to players in more than just a financial sense.
The final decision on what path to take ultimately lies with the individual player, and it always will, but if junior players realise that they realistically will have no shot at success in the GAA at senior level, then their decision to test their luck in a different field may become just that bit easier to make.
With the current demands and expectations of a county player, you don’t want to become that person that Ó Sé is talking about – you don’t want to become the ‘current county player who will look back on their careers in ten years’ time and be going ‘What the f**k was that about?’
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena