Energy better spent on Rules than Railway Cup

Wed, Oct 24, 2012, 01:00

GAELIC GAMES:There is a provincial identity in Gaelic games but it’s more to be found in the context of the provincial championships rather than interprovincial competition, writes SEAN MORAN

HARRY HOUDINI died almost a year before the Railway Cup was inaugurated. He was consequently denied the opportunity to make himself familiar with an institution, which would in time emulate all his legendary feats of escapology.

Compared to some of the tight corners, last weekend’s verdict by Central Council represents deliverance from no more demanding a task than being tied to an icicle with paper ribbons but the fact three years after then GAA president Christy Cooney declared it dead but for the regulatory formalities there it is, still up and running and occupying the energies of the organisation.

As a younger man I wrote sternly that the GAA must make up its mind on the interprovincial competitions: back them or bury them, etc. I of course missed the point that the association is literally incapable of making up its mind on the subject. Every time one part of the administration – generally the full-time secretariat, which has to organise and accommodate the competition – proposes its abolition, the other – the more sentimentally inclined Central Council – refuses to pull the plug.

As part of a consultative process the latest committee on the matter, which was chaired by Armagh Central Council delegate Jarlath Burns, was appointed and asked to identify the best time to run off the interprovincials, as the lack of a regular spot in the calendar has been diagnosed as one of the competition’s most conspicuous shortcomings.

Burns may have amused by the irony thinking back to that congress of 2010 at which Cooney said that the interprovincials were dead. The same weekend Burns fought gallantly to have the mark in football fully debated and was knocked back. Two and a half years later there’s still no sign of the mark (although the Football Review Committee may propose its reconsideration) and the supposedly stricken interprovincials are still ambling through the landscape.

The document produced is an interesting exercise, grappling as it does with the essential truth nobody’s that interested any more and laying out the arguments for and against various slots on the calendar. Too much of the competition’s advocacy relies on surreal invocations of the past: “It’s a shame the way those Amstrads have been let go. Remember that green lettering on the screen! They sold 700,000 in the mid-1980s. Seven hundred thousand! A bit of promotion is all they need. Of course the GAA couldn’t care less . . ., etc.”

The Burns committee, the Interprovincial sub-group, didn’t in its presentation make recommendations but just laid out the options with flashes of amusing understatement. Bullet-point six on page three (Current Scenario) states: “Many initiatives have been tried to revive it.” Bullet-point seven: “All have failed”.

Page six (The Rugby Comparison) at bullet-point three: “Some argue our own provincial identity has suffered as a result of the decline of interprovincials.” Bullet-point four: “Strong arguments against this analysis.”

The sub-group’s addressing of that comparison with rugby was worthwhile because there’s far too much misleading argument that the GAA has in some way conceded interprovincial sport to the IRFU. Even bullet-point one on this page states: “IRFU has created a successful professional structure around the provincial identity.” It would be more accurate to say Lansdowne Road has created a successful professional identity around the provincial structure.

Rugby has had provincial teams for well over a century and until around 15 years ago there was as much interest in their dealings as there is in the Railway Cup. Professionalism changed that in that it created a requirement for revenue-generating competitions, which by their nature have to have public appeal.

The demographic requirements of professional teams in Ireland made the provinces an ideal unit for competing at that level and the modern era in Irish rugby began. It’s hard to argue the crowds attending Celtic League and European Cup matches are there for any different reasons than spectators the world over follow the local professional franchise.

There is a provincial identity in Gaelic games but it’s more to be found in the context of the provincial championships rather than interprovincial competition. Every sport has its elite competitions: Gaelic games are run on a county basis and rugby’s are organised on a provincial structure.

There is also a passing reference to the “decline” of the IRFU club system. This is frequently used as an argument against professionalism, citing the impact on clubs as a negative consequence. But the reality is a little different. Adult club rugby has suffered a fall in numbers since professionalism but so have other team sports, which weren’t amateur in the mid-1990s. The global, lifestyle drift away from team-based recreational activity isn’t unique to rugby.

What the game has gained is dramatically elevated profile. Hundreds of children turn up for mini-rugby and the visible identification of the public with the provinces as evidenced in replica jersey sales testify to the growing popularity of the game and its marquee competitions.

There is an interesting checklist on page eight of the presentation entitled: “How do we define a successful competition”? The bullet-points largely define something that the interprovincials clearly are not: A large crowd, Money generator for the Association, Media interest, Medal means a lot to players, A team dynamic is created and Respected by administrators.

Coincidentally these elements all apply to another competition that has also been down-graded in recent years. The International Rules series has suffered badly from being reduced to a three-year cycle, including a gap year. Its consequent loss of momentum has contributed to a noticeable becalming of the project. Even some Croke Park officials privately accept that the gap year leads to a major void in the autumn schedules where previously the GAA was delivering, in alternate years, good crowds and annually decent media coverage during an otherwise dead period of the calendar.

This isn’t to diminish the obvious problems facing the international series. Maybe it is too delicate a concept depending as it does for its survival on the constant competitiveness between just two games from different ends of the earth. But it’s equally true that many of the international game’s problems were caused by failures: to address indiscipline forcefully before it was nearly too late and to avoid complacency about player availability, which in later years has inhibited selections.

But the basic point is whereas a competition with virtually no vital signs continues to absorb the energies of capable individuals like Burns and his committee, a perfectly serviceable one is sitting in the corner undermined by neglect.

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