What did we learn from GAA Annual Congress 2021?
By Daire Walsh
The dust has now settled from the GAA’s first - and hopefully last - Virtual Congress and it is now a matter of when the various motions that were passed last Saturday can be put into practice.
There is still great uncertainty as to when club and inter-county matches will be allowed to resume, with the latter no longer being categorised as an ‘elite’ sport under the Irish Government’s Level Five restrictions in their fight against the spread of COVID-19.
However, there will be clarity for club and county players alike from 2022 onwards, after the much discussed ‘split season’ was fully endorsed at Congress. This will see inter-county fare taking precedent until the end of July, with the club calendar then kicking in during the second half of the year.
In an anti-climax, the day had begun with the first motion on the agenda being deferred to a Special Congress that will be held later in this year. This motion seeks to replace the title of ‘County Development Officer’ with that of ‘County Planning and Training Officer’, while also establishing the new role of ‘County Safety and Facilities Officer’.
While nothing can be taken for granted within the Gaelic Games Association, this should prove to be a mere formality when the time comes. Also set to be voted upon at the Special Congress is Motion 3, which seeks to establish an Audit and Risk Committee within counties and provinces.
Motion 2 at Saturday’s Congress sought to change the financial year end for counties, provinces, and the GAA itself from a national perspective, from October 31 to September 30. Despite one speaker opposing the motion - and seven raising their hands in opposition - it was ultimately approved.
Further along, Motions 4-7 had already been approved by Central Council, but needed to be ratified by Congress. The most interesting of these was Motion 7, which looks to bring an end to joint captains of winning teams raising silverware in unison during post-match presentations.
This is something that has traditionally been done in the past, stretching back to the 1995 All-Ireland senior football championship final, when team skipper John O’Leary and star defender Paul Curran lifted the Sam Maguire Cup together following their dramatic one-point win over Tyrone. Declan O’Sullivan and Colm Cooper did the same after Kerry’s emphatic triumph against Mayo in the 2006 All-Ireland SFC decider - Cooper having filled in for his attacking partner after he had been left out of the starting line-up for their previous two encounters.
It has since come in for criticism within GAA circles - particularly as it hadn’t been debated in any great detail - but it was passed along with three other motions that related anti-doping rules, team sheets and the closed season.
After a motion was passed in relation to goalkeepers receiving a pass inside his square from a player he has delivered a kick-out to - a punishment that will result in a free from the 13-metre line rather than a penalty - there was yet another motion that has been deferred to the aforementioned Special Congress. At the present moment, a walkover doesn’t count as the next game in a competition for players or officials who are serving a suspension.
Should Motion 9 be passed at the Special Congress, this will only continue to be the case for the team that has given a walkover and not for their opponents.
This was the cue for Motion 10 to be debated with GPA CEO Paul Flynn offered the floor to explain it in minute detail. The former Dublin footballer explained that, in order for a player to compete in the various inter-county championships under the auspices of the GAA, they have to complete an online anti-doping education course - as outlined by the GAA - within the same year.
Alongside this, there will be a proposed one-match suspension in the same code and competition for those who fail to do so. Unsurprisingly, this was passed with minimal fuss.
A large weight of expectancy had been placed on the shoulders of the Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force, who were doing their best to come up with a system that satisfied the various stakeholders within the GAA.
They had put forward Motion 12 to 19 for discussion at Congress, which led to vociferous debate at this virtual gathering. While the split GAA season - which will see the All-Ireland senior finals played on or before the 29th Sunday of the year - was to emerge as the main talking point, it was one of just many motions to gain approval on the day.
Following intense discussion - and opposition from counties like Galway, Tyrone and Dublin - a motion to restrict county senior and intermediate championships to a maximum of 16 teams was passed with a 66% majority.
Motion 14 proposed that the winners of the Munster and Leinster U20 Hurling Championships would play each other in an All-Ireland final at this grade. Additionally, it was suggested that Galway and any interested Ulster counties could compete in the Leinster Championship.
This was carried, along with a motion that prevents someone who has played in a Tier One senior inter-county hurling championship match from participating at the U20 grade in the same year, until after their senior inter-county side has been eliminated from the championship. This was already the case in Gaelic football and is now a universal rule across the association.
Motion 16 centered around the completion of the Post-Primary School Championship at national level by the weekend following St Patrick’s Day, while the Sigerson Cup and Fitzgibbon Cup competitions were to be completed by the seventh and eighth Sundays of the year. Again, this motion was passed without too much opposition.
Thanks to the approval of Motion 17, the All-Ireland Junior Football Championship is to be reconstituted. In the future, this will involve a four-team semi-final line-up that will see the British Junior Football Championship finalists facing Kilkenny and New York on an annual basis.
Motions 18 and 19 could lead to a radical overhaul of the current structure of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. However, this is to be voted upon at the Special Congress.
Aside from the split season, the motion on cynical fouling in football and hurling was to one to garner the most headlines. Until recently, there hadn’t been any great desire to introduce any measures to tackle offences of this nature in the small ball game.
Yet with a number of goal-scoring opportunities halted by deliberate defensive fouls in the recently completed hurling championship, there was a clamour for this to change. Under this motion, if a player was pulled down, tripped or struck with a hurl either inside the 20-metre line or the arc, then a penalty is be awarded and the offending player is to be yellow-carded and sent to the sin-bin for a duration of 10 minutes.
Similarly, it was proposed that a similar penalty punishment be introduced for football, which already has a 10 minute sin-bin as part of its current rules. There have been passionate arguments for and against these alterations in both codes but it was ultimately passed by 61% to 39%. As an extension of the above, Motion 21 was passed. This will see a referee being given leeway to wave play on after an aggressive foul is committed - if he believes a goal-scoring opportunity is on the horizon for the attacking team.
Meanwhile, the passing of Motion 23 brought the era of the Maor Foirne to an end. Whereas one member of the management has been allowed to come on the field in recent years to deliver instructions, the only backroom member permitted to enter play from now won will be a medic summoned by the match day referee.
In a boost for those who are used to life in the lower echelons of the GAA, a motion was passed that will enable a team to start a match with 13 players on the field - provided they can be increased to their full compliment of 15 players by the time the second half starts. Nevertheless, this motion does allow for a team to finish a game with 13 players if factors such as injury were to come into play.
Echoing a move recently taken by a number of soccer associations, a motion was also approved to allow teams a temporary substitution of a player who has a suspected head injury - as is currently the case in rugby union.
The Congress concluded with 10 motions being passed in relation to the establishment of a new body known as World GAA and a number of routine proposals in relation to the rules of the game.
After that, it was left for John Horan to give his final address as GAA President. The Dubliner now hands over the reins to Cork man Larry McCarthy, who has served as chairman of the New York GAA Board for a number of years.
There will be many challenges ahead for the Leesider, not least leading the association in what we all hope will be the final months of this global pandemic. The appointment of an overseas candidate was an historic first for the GAA and McCarthy will aim to leave a lasting legacy during his time in office.