JUST before the start of the GAA Championships it is customary for the President or one of his acolytes to call a press conference to gravely inform the public that the Association are determined to eradicate foul play. Last year we were told that referees were going to concentrate on “cynical fouling” which was a “matter of grave concern” and referees wouldn’t hesitate to produce black cards.
Some did, most didn’t, and by the time the finals had come round the dire warnings had been forgotten. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when World Rugby issued an edict regarding a clampdown on head-high tackles. Just as with the GAA, there would be no need for these if referees were to do their job properly. When Ireland faced New Zealand only one side adhered to the warning – Ireland. The All Blacks were aware that the referee was weak and set out to win at all costs. The citing commissioner identified 12 breaches of the edict in his review of the match and just one of these was committed by the Irish. In the week between the clash with the All Blacks and the arrival in Dublin of the Wallabies the airwaves have been dominated by the behaviour of the Kiwis and the inept performance of the South African referee.
Having been gifted two tickets I was present in the Aviva Stadium for the Ireland v Australia game last Saturday evening. We were seated in the centre of the West Stand just beside the substitutes. I found myself as much interested in events on the sideline as on the pitch. The game was part of the November Series sponsored by Guinness. Their name was emblazoned on the halfway line and behind both sets of goalposts. Before the start of proceedings a giant Guinness inflatable was dragged to the centre of the pitch while a massive item in the shape of a rugby ball suitably adorned with the company brand all but kept the Garda band out of sight as the President of IRFU (accompanied by Uachtarán na hÉireann) was introduced to the players and officials. It was certainly good business for Guinness and probably more so for the IRFU.
However, it seems to me that it shows how fickle certain sections of the Irish media, and to some extent the Irish public, are. France does not allow alcoholic advertising at sport venues and it seems like yesterday that there was a public outcry when Guinness were the sponsors of the All-Ireland Hurling Championship, a deal which ended three years ago, having lasted some 18 years. Every spring at the launch of the Hurling Championship there was a public outcry that the GAA were associated with an alcoholic drinks firm. Although the GAA never allowed Croke Park to be emblazoned with the Guinness name and crest, there was a constant onslaught from politicians, lobby groups, medical people and many others.
The radio talk shows were greatly taken with events in the Aviva game against New Zealand but I did not hear one person complain or protest about the “Guinness-isation” of the Aviva stadium which leads to the conclusion that it’s okay for rugby, but with the GAA it’s a different thing altogether. Many of the critics undoubtedly dislike the GAA more than alcohol. But then globally rugby is a bigger entity and different rules apply. The Irish Minister of Sport, Shane Ross (he went to the Brazil Olympics to admonish Pat Hickey), told us last week that “it wasn’t cricket or Gaelic football which is the leading Irish sport. “The game of rugby is uniting Ireland,” he said. Given the muted welcome for President Michael D Higgins and the indifference to Amhrán na bhFiann, he might well be right, but he might also reflect that the chances of success in the bid for the Rugby World Cup in Ireland depend more on the GAA than the IRFU.
Given the central position of my seat on Saturday, I was intrigued by the number of officials on the sideline. I saw one official run from the sideline to the tunnel. He hit the top of his head a few times while conversing with an Irish team mentor. In fact he was one of a team of two doctors and a physio with access to instant playback on a laptop. If anyone in their group see or suspect an incident which might have caused a head injury they call for another look. These are in addition to another doctor and two physios who patrol the sideline running on and off the field as and when needed. If a player is deemed to have a head injury he is brought off immediately and assessed by doctors in the Head Injury Assessment unit in the medical suite in the corridor. This is what happened to CJ Stander in the New Zealand match. He was “completely pissed off” when he was told he could not resume. A similar assessment was made on Rob Kearney last Saturday.
The underlying reason for this new-found caution goes beyond player welfare or a sense of fair play. If the level of brutality shown in the New Zealand encounter were to escalate then it will be no time until the wigs and gowns are on the job. There are already a number of cases heading for the courts. The parents of a schoolboy who died tragically after being concussed in a schools rugby game have taken a case. Former Leinster player, Cillian Willis, has a case pending against Sale over an incident which ended his career. Rule changes and more consistency are essential if the game is to survive or judges will be making more rulings than the rugby authorities and the income from Guinness will be used to pay out damages.
Incidentally, I paid for a radio for the game on Saturday. I thought I would be tuning into a game commentary but instead I was listening to the referee. It added greatly to my enjoyment of the game. My accomplice didn’t use a radio. On the way home Billy Gillen gave a very interesting account of the social history of Clonakilty and certain population trends. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went there for a holiday.