As the last provincial club fixtures bring the GAA year to an end this weekend, the now annual debate about a closed season for inter-county players has raged once again.
Since 2008, November and December have been off limits for collective inter-county training, a rule introduced by the GAA to counter player burnout.
Broadly welcomed by players at the time, the authorities felt the best way to ensure county players received a proper rest period was to impose it as a rule.
However, since the rule was brought in, it has been openly flaunted by many counties with several squads back doing collective strength and conditioning work since October.
Managers, accused by many for forcing the agenda, will argue that most of the work being carried out during this pre-season period is ‘pre-hab’ work, designed to reduce the risk of injury during the playing season.
Others believe they are just searching for an early season edge, hoping to create a winning mentality in the squad from the off.
As the rule precludes players from engaging collective training sessions, they are also not entitled to receive any travel expenses or their normal squad entitlements and an increasing number are accusing the GAA of using the training ban as a simple cost cutting measure.
With little or no regard being paid to the rule, the GAA, with the broad support of the GPA, has drafted proposals to introduce a flexible model for counties i.e. those who are knocked out of the championship earliest may return to training first, thereby reducing the need for the rule to be breached.
Included in this model is a mandatory one week closed period at Christmas.
Some believe this mightn’t go far enough though. Many county hurlers and footballers play for as many as six different teams – club senior and U21, college freshman and senior teams, county senior and U21 – and the conflicting demands make it impossible to get a proper rest from the game.
Take for example the case of one minor footballer who contested the All-Ireland final last September. No sooner had the dust settled on his duties with the county minor squad than he was back in senior championship action with his club.
Following the exit of his club, U21 club football championship action was next followed by his new duties with his college football squad. Throw in the fact that he is now also training with the county set-up and one is forced to ask the question – whither the training ban?
One suggestion is that county training schedules should be co-ordinated by one resident expert in the county and that the need for a sustained period of rest for individual players should be determined and monitored by this individual.
However, with many county boards under serious financial strain, the idea of creating another fulltime position may not be rational although one manager recently claimed that this may actually save cash-strapped Boards money in the long run.
The issue has become a source of embarrassment for the GAA who have to stand over a rule that is impossible to enforce.
It has also added further strain to the relationship between managers and senior administrators in the GAA and, if allowed to persists, will create new strains between players and administrators.
If all are agreed that there should be a proper, formal rest period for county players from the game, then it behoves everyone involved to come up with a solution.
That will require a period of rigorous engagement with managers, players and administrators to find a workable model.
While there has been contact between the various groups, it has been piecemeal to date and the disparate nature of our games means that vested interests still prevail.
What is clear is that a simple, formal, time-based rest schedule, even one with flexibility, is unlikely to work across the board.
With the reputation of the GAA and the welfare of the player at stake, the GAA cannot risk getting this wrong again.
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