I’ve been involved in Gaelic games for most of my life but I still find myself constantly puzzled by the peculiarities within the association.
Everyone knows that the GAA can be fussy and regimental when it comes to rules and regulations. But sometimes it’s the small things that leave a lasting impression.
For instance, why can't a player carry his hurl onto the field on the walk around before a big game? Think about the strangeness of that. You go to play an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, say. Maybe 60,000 people turning up, millions in gate receipts and a nationally televised game.
The teams get to walk the pitch when they arrive. But the players cannot carry their hurl with them. It’s just not permitted. I’m not sure why - I’ve never heard an explanation. It is not as though we are going to tear up the pitch.
I know this may seem like a small thing. But we are hurlers at the end of the day, trying to prepare to play our best on a county team in what can be a demanding environment. Why not make things easier for the players rather than more difficult?
I don’t know if this has always been the rule. But it has gone that way over the past few years.
And it’s not consistent: it applies to Croke Park and to Semple Stadium in the All-Ireland championship. But that’s where big championship games are played. What are you going to do - take 10,000 sideline cuts and root up the pitch? It doesn’t make sense.
We played Cork in our last league game in 2021 in Pairc Ui Chaoimh - a match that we ultimately won and, subsequently, ended up sharing the title with Kilkenny. When we arrived, the steward was there with the door locked. We weren’t allowed to walk on the pitch at all.
So the first time we got to go onto the pitch was for the warm up. Obviously, we weren’t very familiar with the surface. You might wear ‘mouldies’ or six-stud boots, depending on the day. Yet we couldn’t even test the field before we got togged out. What is the reasoning here? We weren’t given one in Cork.
We were told to go out onto the Astro turf beforehand. It was just a flat no: you can’t go out there until the warm up. It was an odd scenario. And I don’t blame the stewards or groundsmen: they were merely acting on orders.
It almost makes you think that there is a group of guys who need to come up with these rules to keep themselves relevant
But it came to my mind while watching the Galway substitutes warming up before the recent championship game against Westmeath. It caught my eye because the fourth official was paying more attention to the fellas warming up than to the game. So let’s say you see three guys running along the sideline - as you will do at all games. For whatever reason, the players are not allowed to warm up with a hurl in their hands.
These limitations are not even a matter of frustration or aggravation for players. You live with them. But they don’t make sense. Why can’t a player warm up with a hurl in his hands? Why can’t substitutes puck a ball around at half time in the definitive championship games?
What can possibly be achieved by preventing a player who might be expected to come cold into a hugely tense, important game from getting his eye in during the half time break?
It is a rule for the sake of a rule. It almost makes you think that there is a group of guys who need to come up with these rules to keep themselves relevant. This season, we have seen the odd situation where the Under-20 hurling championship in Munster is played as round-robin while the Leinster equivalent is run off as a straight knock out tournament. I find that baffling.
It has been suggested that the reason for the difference is that Leinster does not have enough floodlit grounds: that apart from Portlaoise and Parnell Park, the options for evening games are limited. If that's the case, then it is surely very sad that the development of those hurlers in Leinster has been limited.
What it means is that teams in Munster will potentially play two or three games more than some teams in Leinster. So you have to ask: where is the pathway for development for those Under-20 players in the Leinster counties? It’s particularly tough given that the weaker teams are more likely to be eliminated in the early rounds. And they are the very teams whose players need as many games as possible.
Most Under-20 teams would have gathered for training before Christmas for what was ultimately a one-game championship season. And because of the rule that you can’t play Under-20 if you have represented the county at senior level, it means that these players are essentially cut adrift for a time.
They aren’t in the senior set up. Under-20 is over and done. They essentially only have club hurling - and the county championship may be deferred because of the All-Ireland senior championship.
In theory, the Under-20/senior rule was put in place as a safeguard against burn out. But in reality it has resulted in a scenario where many Under-20 hurlers are actually under-playing. They aren’t getting enough elite games to help them to progress to the level they may wish to reach.
Yes, there was an era where a strong underage player might be called on to play minor, Under-21 (as it was) and senior in the same season. But the revision of minor to Under-17 has removed that age bracket from the equation. And the limitations imposed on the Under-20/senior brackets have put a stop to that.
There have already been instances of Under-20 hurlers getting maybe five minutes or so of senior hurling championship game time and then being ineligible to play for the Under-20s in the championships.
So hurlers at that vital age are caught in a kind of no man’s land. All because certain rules and limitations are put in place with no real thought of the consequences.
The peculiar thing is that the burden of over-playing has probably moved down the age brackets to 13-16. For years, underage contests were run along Under-14, Under-16 and Under-18 age brackets. Youngsters would play ‘up’ a year in many cases. But now there are competitions run at every age - Under-13, Under-14, Under-15 and right through to minor.
That works perfectly in the city clubs or a town that has a large population. But to take Portumna, my own club: we are nearly the only club in east Galway that hasn't amalgamated at underage level.
We played an Under-15 Feile tournament game against Athenry recently. It's a big town. All their team belonged to that age bracket. We had to draw from Under-13 and Under-14s just to field a team. So the grading is fine in theory. But I have nephews who are nearly playing every day of the week to try and fill teams. I have one nephew who plays at Under-14, Under-15 and Under-16.
And there are many clubs around Ireland which are much smaller than Portumna and struggle to meet the demands. For instance, Kilimor and Meelick-Eyrecourt have amalgamated at underage level in order to field teams. Mullagh and Kiltormer have done the same. That's four clubs within my locality who have been forced to make a fairly radical decision just to keep developing players.
Keep driving towards Galway city and you begin to encounter the opposite experience. Oranmore, Clarinbridge: these clubs are growing at an extraordinary rate and they have their own problems with 40 kids competing for 15 places. But I sometimes wonder what was wrong with the traditional two-year age brackets of Under-14s, Under-16s and Under-18s. Was there really a need to change it?
It all feeds into a sense that the GAA is in a strange place at the moment. For instance, I've known all week that Leinster are playing Toulouse in the Champions Cup this weekend. I know it because I can't really miss it: on the radio, on television, anything sports-related you might read.
Rugby does a brilliant job at marketing itself. I know Galway plays Laois this weekend in the senior hurling championship. But I’m from Galway and am a recently retired hurler. I’m not sure I could list the Munster championship fixtures off the top of my head. Why is that?
There has been a lot of talk about the GAA’s decision to essentially cede August and September to other sports. The club-and-county calendar issue is important and had to be addressed. Whether the association is wise to abandon what were, traditionally, its own months, is an on-going debate.
But right now, we are in the middle of an All-Ireland championship that does not feel like a championship to me.
There is no real build up. It appears as if games are simply being run-off: almost to get them out of the way. It is a compressed championship taking place in a different part of the calendar year. It feels odd. That’s why I think the GAA should be doing more to market it.
It’s true that all counties can rely on its hurling and football supporters to show up at the stadium weekend after weekend. Maybe the GAA relies on that. The competition between sports to attract young players has never been more intense. It may not matter now but in five, 10 years it will start to have an impact. And then it will be too late.
It just sometimes feels as if the GAA makes things far more difficult than they need to be.