I have pointed out in the past, for the benefit of non-Irish readers, that the vast majority of our youth in Ireland play Gaelic Games, as in gaelic football or hurling, (there is also handball and camogie for the girls).
A small but growing minority play soccer or rugby. Of the hundreds of thousands of young boys who begin training for the gaelic season each year across all the age groups, very few make it to the top. The Gaelic Athletic Association, (GAA), which runs the show maintains its independence and its amateur status. The players in the last eight teams every year in both hurling and football train every bit as hard as professional soccer and rugby players but they do not get paid for it. There is no financial incentive for any fit young bloke to play either gaelic game.
Indeed, Moms and Dads all over the land fork out hard earned money on club kits, boots, training shoes, tracksuits, hurling sticks and kit bags and after doing all of that, they drive junior to and from training twice a week in the depths of winter and to and from a game every weekend. Nobody moans about that because it is only good parenting. The story is similar with the junior soccer and rugby players as well of course.
But by the time junior turns eighteen though, things change drastically. The best of the GAA boys have the same levels of fitness and skill as their soccer and rugby playing brothers and an equal commitment to sporting success. But the governing bodies of the sports have their own agendas and deal with their ranks differently when they reach manhood.
The Football Association of Ireland, (the FAI), and the Irish Rugby Football Union, (the IRFU), offer professional contracts to the cream of the crop. The GAA however, wants their cream to get a job and fund themselves while still offering 100% commitment to their team. For every one lad choosing either soccer or rugby, there will be twenty opting for the GAA. Our finest and brightest athletes are amateurs and yet we can qualify for Soccer World Cups and be ranked third in the world of rugby.
How is this possible? I went to a rugby playing school as a boy and it was one of only two in Cork. Every other school, and there were loads of them, played gaelic games exclusively. The rugby schools fed players into the three clubs here, Dolphin, Constitution and Highfield. For inter-provincial games, the Munster clubs fed the players for a Munster team and then the Irish selectors choose a team from the four provinces, (which was then regularly beaten). But the decision to turn pro changed everything and the IRFU made a fantastic job of it when they got the chance.
By funneling all the money into the four professional provincial teams, (Munster, Leinster, Connaught and Ulster), they ensured the players there had no money worries and had the best of training facilities available to them. It took a few years but then great players began to emerge and Ireland as a result, had a credible team for once. Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, and many more came out of that first experiment in Munster.
A few weeks back I got into a row with an aging GAA bloke when I referred to the number of rugby players today who began their sporting lives with the GAA. Brian O'Driscoll, Simon Zebo, Darren Sweetnam, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Bowe, Thomas O'Leary, Mick Galway, Shane 'Shaggy' Horgan, Geordan Murphy and even Sean Cronin, all played gaelic games before turning to rugby. The hand eye co-ordination coupled with a natural ability to catch and hold a ball are basics in either code of gaelic games. So the guys above brought skill and fitness to rugby and apart from learning new rules and becoming acquainted with the egg-shaped ball, the transition was easy. But the question is, why did they switch and that's why I got into the row with yer man?
To make it as far as an All-Ireland semi final is truly a credit to any player. To win an All-Ireland medal you have to be a great sportsman with infinite commitment. I believe the young Brian O'Driscoll probably hoped one day to run onto Croke Park to play in a final. The problem though is that it's extremely hard for the GAA players to put in the effort needed and still build a working career and earn a living. As they are maturing into great players, they are of an age where they are in serious relationships and considering marriage and that, as we all know, is all about money. They may want dearly to continue their sporting careers to become they best they can be, but reality often intervenes.
The professional rugby lad and his professional soccer cousin has no such worries. He can concentrate on his chosen sport while still buying a home, paying the bills and even saving. That is why we are internationally credible in rugby and even considered in soccer. Speaking of soccer, Shane Long, Denis Irwin and the lanky Niall Quinn all began playing GAA first, and they are just the ones I know about off the top of my head. The GAA though is the largest and wealthiest sporting body in Ireland and I irked yer man by saying they were too mean to pay their best players, (it got very heated after that!).
Over the years, Ireland has produced some pretty good cyclists, a couple of Olympic class rowers, some handy 1500m runners and even some great rally drivers, (and F1 too), but in a GAA dominated country, these people were just freaks. Even our title winning boxers also played GAA. I cannot believe that only the very best turn pro and I suggest there are potentially thousands of powerful, fit and driven young blokes in every corner of Ireland who could be great if they were paid to do one thing well every day. The IRFU has a smattering of them now playing rugby full-time and it's no mistake that they beat the mighty All-Blacks recently.
Years ago I watched the All-Blacks humiliate Ireland in Landsdowne Road and the bloke beside at the bar said after the game, "Give them all black pansies hurling sticks and let them turn out against Kilkenny at Croke Park and we'll see who's laughing at half-time." He was right of course because hurling is a faster more skillful game and Kilkenny have been, for long. the single best proponents of the game. But that's the problem too! We have an unbelievable national game in hurling but we are the only nation on the planet playing it. There are no international hurling games, no European Cup, no World Cup of hurling. It's faster than ice hockey and ten times as skillful and the world knows shag all about it. Then the very best hurlers don't get a penny for putting their bodies on the line week in week out. When their careers end its' 'adios' and thanks for the memories.
We are a sports crazy country and even though we are very small in the grand scheme of things, we have that certain something, an attitude or a spirit, I don't know exactly. What I do know is, if the GAA paid their best players to play rugby for five years, Ireland would be the undisputed rugby world champions. The untapped talent is really that good.