Orient expresses huge interest as GAA All Stars make an exhibition of themselves

GAA’s world expansion full of eastern promise after successful mission to Shanghai

Galway’s David Collins with students of the Shanghai University, including Peng Zhontao, who demonstrates his recently acquired skills, during an Introduction to the GAA/welcome reception for the 2013 GAA GPA All-Stars, hosted by the Shanghai GAA Club.  Photograph:  Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Galway’s David Collins with students of the Shanghai University, including Peng Zhontao, who demonstrates his recently acquired skills, during an Introduction to the GAA/welcome reception for the 2013 GAA GPA All-Stars, hosted by the Shanghai GAA Club. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile


At the on-field presentation of medals in Shanghai rugby club last Saturday, Ireland’s ambassador to China Paul Kavanagh remarked that the trains travelling a nearby track, which overlooked the venue, had increased in frequency as the All Stars exhibition match played out down below.

Word had got around, he said, about this wonderful spectacle and travellers wanted to see for themselves.

Writing in Saturday’s match programme Brian Murphy, chair of the hosting Shanghai Gaelic Football Club, pointed out that this was the first hurling match played in city. You’d be curious about the reaction of people who had never previously seen a match.

The people of the world’s most populous city may have many more opportunities to sample the game if last week’s initiative between the GAA and Shanghai’s University of Sport grows wings.

It’s not unreasonable to believe it will. To understand why, a quick recap on the visit made to the university last Friday. Just 61 years old, it’s the oldest sports university in China and reminds the visitor from Ireland of how massive populations can sustain specialisations in virtually any field. The multi-discipline institution covers a wide range of sports-related areas of study.

4,000 undergraduates
Although the School of Physical Education and Coaching is the main area of enrolment, this is a university with 4,000 undergraduates plus 3,000 more between undergraduates, senior students and those from overseas. Sports medicine and journalism is also taught.

More strikingly, there is a significant level of co-operation with academic communities in 15 countries, from the US and Brazil to Germany, Australia, Canada and Japan and the government has appointed it as an authorised independent recruiter of international students.

The campus features entire buildings given over to individual sports, including the new Table Tennis College under construction, which hopes to provide an international centre at which overseas students can study the game and share in the expertise of the country that dominates the sport – to the extent it worries about the future sufficiently to nurture rival countries, much the same way Kilkenny shared the county’s hurling development experience with others over the past 10 to 15 years or so.

There’s an eclectic mix of facilities and ornaments: here a golf training pitch fringed with nets about 50 metres in height, there a statue of Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics.

It’s no wonder GAA president Liam O’Neill and the indefatigable Pat Daly were so enthusiastic to be able to make a presentation at the university and even more so to get the go-ahead to pilot an exchange programme that will see Chinese students trained as hurling coaches and tutored in the English language.

The GAA will send back students to learn Chinese and plug in to the vast store of knowledge in SUS and bring home knowledge of training methods and techniques.

It was striking to observe the levels of interest of the students who packed a lecture theatre last Friday to hear Daly’s introduction to hurling and learn about how ancient a cultural phenomenon the game is in Ireland as distinct from its identity as a thrillingly skilful, mass-spectator sport.

Five All Stars
More impressive was the fact nearly all of the students followed the five All Stars – Clare’s Brendan Bugler and Pat Donnellan, David Collins from Galway, Limerick’s Richie McCarthy and Tipperary’s Patrick Maher – over to a training pitch.

What’s more, there they engaged with the players, who staged a brief demonstration and then got down to conducting some coaching drills. The locals were enthusiastic and a few very good considering they’d not alone just picked up a hurl but for the most part had just seen one for the first time.

It’s also worth recording the players were brilliant at getting the students involved and showed patience and good humour during the whole visit.

Their efforts were all the more commendable in that it had been an early start that morning and they were picking up the slack after the strain of, umm, acclimatising to Shanghai had sabotaged plans to have sufficient present for a practice match.

It has dawned on the GAA that their ambitions to spread the gospel of the games may afford a significant role for universities, particularly sports institutions, where there is a large cohort of committed young people, who are already making a career in the area.

Were hurling, or indeed football to make an impact at centres such as SUS, there would be a formidable cadre of advocates for the sport.

There are sceptics, who point out Ireland isn’t properly evangelised for hurling yet so missionary work in such far flung places is premature.

Liam O’Neill answered the question well by saying the cultural exchange with China would have no impact, good, bad or indifferent, on the continuing efforts to find a pulse for hurling in Cavan or football in Kilkenny. That work goes on.

Mission to Shanghai
Yet the mission to Shanghai echoes the work of GAA founder Michael Cusack who set about establishing hurling in Dublin, in its time only marginally more promising a territory than China.

As fate would have it the 107th anniversary of Cusack’s death fell on the same day that the GAA flew off to Shanghai to take the first steps in another great adventure for its games.

e-mail: smoran@irishtimes.com

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