Connacht’s success raises awkward questions for GAA

Province’s great achievement unlikely to find counterpart in modern-day football or hurling

When Connacht captain John Muldoon remembered Joe McDonagh in the post-match comments after leading his team to the semi-final success against Glasgow, he was acknowledging the sense of collegiate loss in the west.

Memories of McDonagh's rendition of The West's Awake were strong as a statement of triumph against the odds. The man who shared equal billing that day was Joe Connolly, whose powerful oráid from the Hogan Stand has also passed into legend.

Twenty-three years later Connolly made another impassioned speech about his support for Connacht rugby when the province was threatened with being shut down by the IRFU. He also took part in the famous march on Lansdowne Road, which symbolised the resistance that shortly afterwards forced the climb down.

Just over 13 years since those events that landscape has changed utterly; Connacht's defeat of Leinster in the Pro12 final and the interconnectedness of sport in the province has ensured that the sense of jubilation is universal.

In the long run, however, the success of Connacht rugby raises uncomfortable questions for the GAA.

This has nothing to do with competition. John Fallon, the Galway journalist whose expertise has long been brought to bear on both Gaelic games and rugby and who took a sabbatical to work with Connacht in 2003, told Seán O'Rourke on RTÉ radio that he doubted the province's success would have a major impact on recruitment numbers for Gaelic games, although it would definitely be a major promotional tool for rugby.

Issue for the GAA

There is no reason to doubt that. The issue for the GAA is how Connacht rugby arrived at its current heights.

It has been a transformation only possible in professional sport, where resources can be brought in from elsewhere. There are a number of fine players, Muldoon included, who are born and bred in the province; but critical contributors have also come in from elsewhere.

Comparisons with Leicester City are fanciful. Connacht had registered incremental improvement and last year just missed out on European Champions Cup qualification but the distance covered between near extinction and winning the domestic championship is vast.

At the heart of all the issues causing such unease in the GAA’s championships, specifically the football one, is the competitiveness of those competitions.

For whatever reason, the disquiet has become acute now – despite a history that shows only five counties, two in football and three in hurling, have broken double figures on the roll of honour.

Yet the romantic belief was always there that, in a given season, it could be ‘our year’.

That triumph of optimism over experience has been particularly profound in counties with small populations, and even if winning All-Irelands was out of the question, for many counties a provincial title will fire tales and legends for generations.

The problem now is that even such mezzanine achievements are looking less and less likely. As mentioned here before, a former manager in Ulster said that the days of surprises were gone because the advances in sports science, training and preparation techniques have meant that teams with the best players will simply make those advantages count.

There was controversy about Armagh and the county’s manager Kieran McGeeney at the weekend after their stiff beating by Cavan, but a cursory glance at the playing panels of both counties was revealing.

One team had a couple of players from an All-Ireland- winning under-21 team of 12 years ago, plus a few from the largely unfulfilled minor All-Ireland champions of seven years ago; the other side was full of players who had dominated the Ulster under-21 championship in recent years, winning four on the spin.

Weakened

Cavan had a pool of players in their early and mid-20s who had beaten all around them; Armagh did not, and injuries and unavailability further weakened them.

It’s a great tribute to Cavan, with its population of around 75,000, that they have managed to build such a strong base, but it will be a long and arduous trek to go on and win the All-Ireland.

Given the power of population numbers and the influence of tradition, it’s impossible to imagine small counties with no history of success managing to build a challenge so formidable that they can threaten – let alone achieve – winning an All-Ireland.

To take an example from each province: Carlow, Leitrim, Longford or Fermanagh have done well in the league from time to time; most have won a provincial title; and all have won the All-Ireland B title at some stage, grade-level silverware that is no longer countenanced.

Import expertise

If counties don’t want to compete at such a graded level, how will they win anything of significance?

In professional sport benefactors can step in and import expertise. There are plenty of benefactors within the GAA but there is a limit on what may be imported.

Managers and backroom teams can be assembled and they will help, but ultimately the playing stock has to be drawn by and large from the population, however restrictive that may be.

There is no opportunity to hoover up players like Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun and Bundi Aki to pull on Leitrim jerseys, no matter how well resourced the county board or its backers become.

There remain huge strengths within the GAA model, the connectedness and local identity, but it would be hard to say those qualities were not in evidence as Connacht made their bonfire-lit passage from Knock to Galway.

smoran@irishtimes.com

READ MORE