Cork crisis, 26 February 2009

February 26, 2009

Under-fire board left clinging to letter of the law

ON TUESDAY night the Cork County Board met and dismissed last Sunday’s meeting of players and club
officials in Cork as having “no standing” in the rules of the GAA.
The board added that suggestions it was “hiding” behind the rules were wrong.
Consider the backdrop to that meeting: last Sunday the 2008 hurlers received huge backing from the club chairmen and officials they invited to the meeting in the Maryborough House Hotel, with vocal condemnations from the floor of that meeting of the board’s modus operandi.
Last Friday GAA President-elect Christy Cooney and director-general Pauric Duffy made their peace proposals public, which would have removed from the executive all functions from picking senior intercounty managers to fixture planning.
Cooney is a former chairman of Cork County Board and has an intimate knowledge of its operations. What does that say about his co-authorship of that emasculating document?
Last Saturday fortnight over 10,000 people took to the streets of Cork to protest in support of last year’s panel, though soon afterwards there were suggestions that some or many of those people were not fully paid-up members of the GAA, even if anecdotal evidence undermined that particular notion.
Finally, in October of last year the 2008 panel put the board on notice that they would not play for Gerald McCarthy if reappointed.
Taken together, that forms a practically perfect circle of opposition around the executive of the Cork County Board.
From the top it has been condemned as not fit for purpose by the GAA hierarchy; from below it faces rebellion from its own clubs and members.
Its elite hurlers will not play for the board, while its elite footballers may be only six weeks away from joining those hurlers on the sidelines (if they don’t qualify for the league play-offs).
The suggestion that the marchers were semi-detached fans or Saturday shoppers has also rebounded spectacularly; if those marchers weren’t GAA members it’s yet another constituency the executive has alienated — the ‘casual’ fan.
The GAA elite, the GAA grassroots, the GAA’s top box-office draw, the GAA support: is there any group the Cork County Board can’t alienate?

The executive pointed to rule 59 of the official guide of the GAA last Tuesday night to underline their authority in this matter.
Surely somebody can point out that when you have to say you’re the authority on something because you can show where that’s written in a rulebook, then the show is over.
If you need to remind people of your authority then there’s a good reason why they’ve forgotten about it.
One of the most telling contributions to last Sunday’s meeting came when motions were being discussed, and one club official warned that those
motions would have to be worded perfectly.
He was contradicted by another speaker, who stressed that that
kind of nitpicking was part of the trouble.
That’s one of the most unattractive aspects of the GAA. Not so much the glorying in the technicalities — pedants thrive in every walk of life — but the fostering of a culture of fear in which initiatives must be parsed not so much for their advantages or disadvantages on merit but for the fine print of their legalese and the hollow joy of finding a drafting error or a procedural mistake.
There are alternatives to that
culture. Last Tuesday night a board delegate likened the Maryborough meeting to an election rally for Barack Obama, and he may have a point, but not in terms of choreography.
Obama’s favourite book is ‘Team of Rivals’, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of how Abraham Lincoln drew electoral opponents into his cabinet, getting them to work together and triumph over adversity.
In a county other than Cork
disparate elements looking to achieve reform could be drawn
But only in a county other than Cork.

Wrong place but the right club

I F it’s Tuesday, it must be Waterford.

This column rocked up to De La
Salle GAA club’s new premises earlier this week in the Gentle County, ready for a press night ahead of the senior team’s clash this Sunday with Cushendall in the All-Ireland club semi-final.

We bounced over one or two speed bumps along the way: De La Salle are in the process of moving their base of operations from their old playing grounds, in Cleaboy, across to the new venue above Gracedieu in the city, so the club had a presence in both places on Tuesday night. The lift up to Cleaboy delivered us bang on time, only to discover the press event was going on in Gracedieu. Must really start reading those e-mails.

For an uncomfortable minute or two an extremely uncomfortable walk looked on the cards, before a De La Salle intermediate player — thanks, Ronan — offered a lift over to the new clubhouse. Reporter rescued, and sweaty, steamy arrival averted: everybody wins in that situation, believe me. That kind of willingness to give a stranger a dig-out is part of what makes covering the All-Ireland club finals more attractive, a lot of the time, than the big show itself. You end up in places like De La Salle’s new clubhouse, where some of the doors are waiting to be fitted and there’s a whiff of sawdust in the air as they put the outward signs of a club on show.

The inner parts are already in place. When we went into one of the club’s new meeting rooms there were pictures of the 1999 Féile na nGael team already framed and hanging on the far wall, along with a terrific poster advertising the county senior football final replay of 1958 (in the Gaelic Field?).

The plain table was of a make and model common to all hurling and football clubs the length and breadth of the country — an interior designer might call it a GAA, Come What May look. The sandwiches were traditional — plain ham and egg mayonnaise — though kudos to the sweet-toothed club officer who produced an inexhaustible supply of Cadbury’s Mini Rolls (take it as read that the assembled journos tried their best to exhaust it).

The club officials in attendance were beaming with pride, unsurprisingly. No unit of the GAA lives exclusively on champagne and De La Salle have had their lean years just like everybody else. Waterford star John Mullane, who captains De La Salle, spoke feelingly about the 15- and sixteen-point defeats he had suffered with the club senior side in the local championship just a few short years ago. That same cycle applies to Corofin and Kilmacud, to Cushendall and Ballyhale. When the good times come along you try to enjoy them.

O NE OF the great cliches that goes on heavy rotation at this time of year is the one thrown out by GAA stars so famous they’re usually identifiable by their first name alone — that it’s even better when you win something with the club and the lads you grew up with. It’s true, of course, and the proof was on offer in De La Salle.

Kevin Moran was keen to point to the seven hurlers in the picture of the 1999 Féile team who graduated to the senior team and lined out in the county final against Abbeyside last year. Brian Phelan was frank about the players’ meeting which turned the club’s season around in late August. Mullane paid tribute to club heroes like Derek McGrath, who had broken down in training on the Tuesday night before the county final and missed out on the big day.

Most weeks of the year you’re accustomed to meeting these players outside a dressing-room with dozens of others brandishing microphones, cameras and tape recorders. It’s nice, one or two weeks in the year, to meet them on their home ground.

And speaking of home ground… much obliged to club PRO John Sheehan, who kindly gave me a lift back into town from the new clubhouse.

It meant that those Mini Rolls could be digested in comfort.


A CHAT with Jamie Heaslip is
rewarding for all sorts of reasons, not all of them directly related to the next game, or even the last one.

You learn swiftly who the best table tennis player in the Irish rugby squad is (“we had to peel Luke Fitzgerald off the table the day of the Italy game, he was on it for about two hours”) and that Mick O’Driscoll and Malcolm O’Kelly are not men to face if you don’t have faith in the three of a kind you’re holding.

There’s mock-exasperation with last Sunday’s full-back (“Rob was worried he’d have a bruise on his face for the night out”) and an honest appraisal of how it feels to be stuck in a Roman ruck: “Castro(giovanni) and Parisse coming at you, you’re thinking ‘oh Jaysus, here we go’”.

Even when talk switches to the minutiae of last Sunday’s win over Italy, he can’t help being honest. Take this evaluation of his near-try: “I was close, I thought I was going to get over but your man got under me. He did really well, in fairness, though I don’t think Rog was too happy with me for not offloading.”

Heaslip pays warm tribute to his
forward colleagues, even if his maths aren’t flawless: “I couldn’t say enough about the front five, especially John (Hayes) — he made my life so easy at the back (of the scrum), to attack, it was a joke. At 50 years old, to be still pulling those games out of the hat … you can’t say enough about the man.

“All those guys are getting through an unbelievable amount of work — rucks, tackles, stuff that’s not as glamorous, but it loosens the back row to do our thing, that frees the backs to do their thing — it’s a knock-on effect and the game always starts with how well the front five do.”

Two years ago Heaslip missed the historic win over England in Croke Park. He didn’t go to Jones Road that day but hopes he’ll need his boots on Saturday week.

“My first worry is Deccie picking me, because you don’t know what you’re going to get with Deccie! I missed out two years ago. I don’t tend to go to games if I’m not playing, apart from Leinster, but I watched it (on TV), and it was amazing. I’d like to be part of that this time round.”

And there’s always last year’s defeat in Twickenham to avenge.

“It wasn’t nice last year, it never is, losing — particularly to England. A lot of people have written them off, which is unfair. Wales took one chance which turned the game, and that was from turnover ball — anything can happen with a turnover but Wales punished them.

“England were still in it with 10 or 15 minutes to go, and I think we’ll have our work cut out for us. We’ll have our video sessions this week so I’ll be more learned when it comes to England then.”

New Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal also gets the thumbs up. “He’s intense, very, very detailed. He does unbelievable work on lineouts — as does Paulie (O’Connell) — and you can see that work in how we defend lineouts, that’s going pretty well.

“He does good continuity and rucking drills, and they’re paying off with the offloading and reasonably quick ruck ball. And scrums … he loves his scrums and his front five.

“Off the pitch the banter is good, though he doesn’t take too well to talk about the punch he knocked the Kiwi out with. He wants a bit of pushing from me (in scrums), so I try to give it to him.”

Heaslip admits They’ll need to have their homework done for England.

“Their backs are very attack-oriented, and with England you always have a pack that’s mobile, big and strong. That’s just the way they are — they have quality to pick from, and they’ll be tough no matter what.

“They were unlucky against Wales, and people gave out about how they won against Italy, but they took their chances when they came. (It) is going to be another war of attrition. They carry hard and hit hard, but the way to counteract that is to do the same thing back for the full 80.”

People are enjoying the team’s success at a time when there’s plenty of bad news, something Heaslip acknowledges.

“Deccie’s talked about it, people are focused on it to take their minds off things. It happened in the past, looking at Ireland at the soccer World Cups, that took the focus off things at the time. If people want to do that, do it.

“I don’t think it puts any added pressure on us. We’re still going to approach the game the same way, but I suppose it could be something to give people to smile about a little more.

“I don’t know if that works for Leinster, because you guys give it to us anyway, but with Ireland, if it brings a little joy to someone’s life then it’s not going to do any harm, any is it?”

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: “I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”

DECLAN KIDNEY isn’t long setting out his stall. Over a cup of tea in a Cork hotel, he stresses what’s important when it comes to coaching: “It’s all about the team and the players. They’re the ones doing all the work.”

Still, people are curious about the new Ireland coach. The man who made his name steering Munster to glory in Europe now holds the top job in Irish rugby, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the run of
himself. He still prepares properly: take the games he attends as a spectator.

“Before the November series, myself and Les (Kiss) were at games, preparing notes as to what we might say if we were going
into dressing-rooms at half-time — so you’re still used to it. You don’t want to be experimenting.

“But at half-time there’s no point in trying to flood fellas with information. They’ve broken their melt in the first half, so how much information can they take in? It needs to be fairly precise, and sometimes it’s as simple as ‘keep at what you’re doing’.”

Kidney can isolate a couple of crucial events which were vital in terms of the experience he gained as a coach.

“The two games I remember are Munster against Castres, the year after we’d been to the final in Twickenham. We were something like 21-3 down at half-time. We’d made two mistakes and they’d scored two tries, and it was a matter of recognising that.

“On the law of averages the opposition would make two mistakes and we had to capitalise on that, and the ploy was to stay with it.

“To me that was a huge match. In the Twickenham season we got on a roll but the following season we could have
capitulated, and we didn’t.

“Then you had the Clermont game last season. They were flying, but we had turned the ball over so much in the first 20 minutes, and in the 10 minutes before half-time, when we did hang onto the ball, we made huge inroads.

“So our feeling was, ‘well, we can’t do anything about the first 20 minutes, but let’s hang onto the ball and see how much we can claw back’. And the players did that.”

Kidney’s bow at the end of last year’s Heineken Cup final wasn’t the dramatic farewell it appeared to be (“My family was in a certain section, I saw them, it was a bit of a family slag”), but there’s been plenty of emotion along the way. He had some practice when it came to leaving Munster behind.

“I’d a bit of experience of that. In 2002 myself and Niallo (Donovan) knew it was our last game, we were going to be
involved with Ireland. It sounds cold, but you have to remove yourself from that.

“The fact that it (the 2008 Heineken Cup final) was my last game . . . it was about an hour later in the dressing-room that that creeped in. I’d kept it away
before that.

“That might sound cold. I’d hate to say it’s a skill. It’s a necessity. You have to do it. It’s a facet of life – how do paramedics keep their cool at accidents, for instance? Because there’s a job to be done. In my case I’ve to keep an eye on the game, see if substitutions need to be made and talk at half-time.

“I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”

What does players good is balance, a key word in the Kidney lexicon.

He expands on the advantages Irish players can exploit.

“You can give people too much information, so it’s a case of getting the balance right so they’re organised, but not so organised they’re thinking ‘what should I do next’ rather than playing what’s in front of them.

“As an Irish team we play best when we’re doing that. Genetically we’re not as big as some sides we play, though we work hard in the gym.

“But then a lot of our fellas come from a GAA background which gives them a vision other countries’ players don’t have, and I’d hate to take that away from them; you can coach that out of them.

“Niall Ronan’s try against Clermont, which was a hugely important score, that was a Gaelic try. He used all his
footballing instincts for it.

“A lot of Irish players have played
soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, and I want to encourage them to let those skills come out — as well as lads who have played nothing but rugby. If we’re not as big genetically then we must use other skills.

“You’ve to marry the old — our
madness, which did us alright for 100 years — and better organisation, without ruling out the madness. And also having the bit of crack. Irish teams are better when they’re having a bit of crack.”

The perfect example of mixing skills is Denis Leamy, who frequently takes kick-offs as though he were playing in Semple Stadium rather than Lansdowne Road.

“You’d encourage him to say his percentage of dropping the ball falls if he turns sideways as it could go backwards,” says Kidney. “Then again, the one or two he takes over his head, the momentum that gives the team . . . there was an
incident in that Clermont game when he just got the ball and ran, and that brought us into the game.

“The advantage of that is that it’s
spontaneous. Nowadays, with analysis, everything is pre-planned, so something like that can help. There’s an advantage in soccer in that you don’t announce your team until an hour before kick-off. If you had that in rugby you’d open the game up a bit.”

Announcing or picking your team is probably the biggest choice that a coach faces, of course. Kidney is clear-eyed on the calls he has to make.

“You make the best choices, what you feel is the best. If you feel you’ll get it right all the time you’re not dealing with reality. Nobody makes the right decision all the time.

“I was asked to do the job based on
decisions I’ve made before and I’ll continue to make the best decisions I can, in the hope that’ll ensure the players play to the best of their ability. That’s the coach’s role. If you can do that you’re successful.”

It must be frustrating, though, when a decision doesn’t come off and the critics don’t have all the information that the coach had when he made the decision.

“Any time you have a job that you like — that it’s a privilege to do — there’ll still be another side to the job. That’s true of everybody’s job.

“A lot of it is okay, you’d think ‘on the basis of what they see that’s a fair opinion, but there’s more to it than that’. It’s when it’s over the top, somebody taking a view on the basis they know everything . . . but that’s life.”

“Criticism is part and parcel of it. The question is where does it cross respect.”

The games back in November attracted some criticism. He accepts the win over Argentina wasn’t entertaining but rejects the notion that encounter was the be-all and end-all of the autumn series.

“I thought they were all big games. Just being Irish, the anthem’s being played . . . I wouldn’t underestimate that. It’s a big thing. We were so disappointed with the previous week (against New Zealand), when we got to the Argentina game we wanted to do better, but some teams are very difficult to play against.

“You have to play a certain way to get a result, because if you go all flowery you can get beaten. I know that was an awful game as such, but to the real rugby person who knows what has to be done, it wasn’t so bad. The forwards fronted up to the
Argentina pack and the backs played it where the forwards needed it to be played.

“We won it with the score we won it by, and we were only semi-pleased. We won it knowing we could play better, so you’re
into ‘potential’. You judge potential by the scores on the board, and that’s what we’ll be judged on.

“There was a sense of relief but relief would mean we weren’t looking forward to it, going into it. We wanted to win because we knew it could have been important with the luck of the draw, but some of the older lads were also saying they wanted to win one of these games against a team ranked above us.”

SINCE then the players have scattered back to provinces and clubs. He’s looking forward to seeing them again, particularly as there’s a week to prepare before the first outing.

“They’ve played four Heineken Cup games to qualify. We’re lucky, they’ve all done well — Ulster have come on a ton, Connacht are doing well, and then you’ve Munster and Leinster — so they’ve played a lot of rugby.

“It’s different to soccer, it’s physical
contact, so we’ll add on to what we’ve done. But it’s helpful to meet up the week you don’t actually have a game, because it gives you time to stand back and look at what’s happening, to air views and so on.”

That doesn’t mean you’re divorced from the emotion, of course. The coach readily admits that the occasion had an impact in his first outing as boss.

“The one in Thomond Park, I had to tell myself to cop myself on. The one against Canada caught me — I was
looking around to see if there were any cameras on me, but I managed to get back in. … but you have to stay

True to form, the coach brings the conversation back once more to his
players. “It’s a strange word,
professionalism, isn’t it? … We have some lads involved with teams in Ireland who aren’t paid, but they’re brilliant.

“The players’ thirst for knowledge, to improve, borders on the obsessive… The players are always looking for the edge — tactically, technically, every way.”

No better man to help them do just that.

A symbolic occasion in more ways than one

T HE first thing to point out about last
Saturday night, which saw the GAA
begin its official 125th anniversary celebrations following Dublin-Tyrone in the NFL opener, is that, that kind of anniversary celebration is, by its nature, a bit of a challenge.

What’s too much? What’s too little? There isn’t even a precious stone you could adopt
for the anniversary: gold and diamond are
appropriate for earlier milestones, but what manner of precious stone would fit 125 years?

Something quarried by friendly aliens from the centre of Halley’s Comet?

Writing in Saturday night’s match programme, Jarlath Burns, chairman of the 125th anniversary committee, outlined the challenges facing him and the committee by listing alphabetically the aspects of the GAA they felt they needed to cover: “All-Irelands, camogie, amateur status, the Championship, Congress, clubs, colleges, communities, counties, Croke Park, culture, Cusack, football, founding members, handball, hurling, Irish language, ladies football, legends, overseas, players, presidents, provinces, rounders, schools, Scor, Thurles, underage.”

Incidentally, if you need verification that Burns was the right man to chair the committee, what he wrote was that he listed the topics in alphabetical order “to avoid offence”.

Sounds like a man all too aware of the tendencies of his constituents.

After a cracking NFL game between the All-Ireland football champions and their
opponents from the capital, we had a light show with fireworks in Croke Park, and your opinion on the much-reported half-million
euro worth of fireworks and lights probably
depends on your perspective.

If you rocked up to Croke Park on Saturday night as an interested punter it probably looked like money well spent. If you watched on television as a harassed club treasurer you probably had a very different take on the entertainment.

That’s not to say that we’re endorsing a new puritanism as a worldwide financial meltdown forces us back to the technological equivalent of 884, never mind 1884.

If its money that belongs to the GAA, then the GAA can spend that money as it sees fit.

What occurred to this viewer was that the show could be viewed as an emphatic full stop, and future historians may decide that the
fireworks and lights serve as the watershed which marks the passing of the Celtic tiger.

It’s likely to be the last occasion for a long time at which you see hundreds of thousands of euro go up in smoke before your eyes
outside of an Anglo Irish Bank shareholders
meeting. The post-match show came across to this viewer like a cross between Led Zeppelin at the Oakland Coliseum and the fertility
rituals of the Tuatha De Dannann. The
Cranberries, Clannad and U2 provided the soundtrack, and in the middle came a snatch
of one of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speeches. Why that had to be used is anyone’s guess.

Then again, host Hector Ó hEochagáin
proclaimed before the light show that Croke Park had outdrawn the Super Bowl, Lansdowne Road, Highbury and other sporting venues. Again, why that had to be stated is a mystery – in fairness, Lansdowne Road isn’t even open, last time we checked, Highbury is now an apartment block – but there seemed to be a determination to hammer home the point that the GAA was more than a sporting organisation at any and every opportunity.

In fact, reading the souvenir programme, with guest articles from the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Brendan Gleeson and Senator David Norris, sometimes you had to remind yourself that the GAA was a sporting organisation at all.

Back on the field, fireworks launched from the pitch perimeter left a residue of faint mist drifting around the darkened stadium, and you half-expected Oisín of the Fianna to step onto the field via the referee’s tunnel at the corner of the Cusack Stand to proclaim that things had changed a good deal since his departure for Tir na nÓg. His opinion of the new experimental rules would have been well worth hearing.
ALL things considered, the creation of
some kind of pseudo-Celtic occasion
recalling a Horslips album cover seemed to us gilding the lily more than somewhat, but each to his own. To some extent you’re never going to please everyone with an event like last Saturday’s.

The match programme described the game and show as a ‘GAA 125th anniversary spectacle’, and in fairness to the footballers of Dublin and Tyrone, they certainly provided a spectacle.

They also encapsulated some basic GAA principles. In Dublin versus Tyrone you had urban versus rural, hungry challengers versus established champions. The colours alone were the most basic opposites: blue versus red.

Proud GAA traditions held sway. The game began nearly 10 minutes late, for instance, and wound down to a time-honoured climax. For all the hydration, diet, tactical innovation and laptop analysis, one team was forced to defend a two-point lead with time running out, and the best their opponents could do with a late free was to bomb it in hopefully around the house, to no avail.

The very highest tradition, excellence, was also upheld. Tyrone’s Stephen O’Neill gave an exhibition that warmed up a freezing night. On 30 minutes he threaded a point over from near the end line at the Canal End that was as good as anything ever seen in Croke Park.

The real glory of the GAA is that you don’t have to wait 125 years to see that again. O’Neill is out in two weeks again to play
Kerry. That prospect, and others like it, is truly worth celebrating.