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The West is Awake

On the 15th October Connacht and Toulouse battled for the right of supremacy in the Champions Cup at the Galway Sportsgrounds. After a gruelling, passionate eighty minutes of what could be more adequately described as “a street fight with a rugby ball,” Connacht were able to claw back a ten point deficit and triumph over one of French rugby’s true ‘superpowers’ – yet there was something bigger at play. An undeniable atmospheric eruption ensued once play had come to a halt: fans were elated, players were on cloud nine and the management team were lán sásta leis an taispeántas. Thus conveying that a collective effort from all camps in sport yields success.

The match got me thinking: it seems no matter how much negligence is forced upon the west of Ireland, they more than often always seem to strive for their optimal best. Whether it be economically (tourism is profound in the west, with areas like Aran islands, Croagh Patrick and Salthill, not to mention the historic medieval streets of Galway city, seeing a constant stream of people) or culturally (the Connemara Gaeltacht is the most well-renowned Gaeltacht within Ireland, acting as one of the main contributors to Galway being voted as European culture capital 2020).

However, it seems to me that there is a missing link within the above socio-economic factors: the political aspect. In my eyes, it appears that the politics within sport in the west are of a cut-throat, malice and unforgiving origin. There is evidence to suggest that politics infiltrate into the decisions of both the management and the players, particularly in the GAA. I’ll explain with the examples of Mayo footballers and Galway hurlers.

Firstly, it must be said that both sides are a credit to themselves and ‘an Cumann Luthchleas Gael’; no matter the outcome of the respective season, their unrelenting character to come back year after year prevails. Both the Mayo footballers and the Galway hurlers have potential players of the year in Cillian O’Connor and Joe Canning. Intercounty players nowadays go beyond human capabilities in pursuit of the Holy Grail: countless hours of preparation entailing reduced work hours, strict diets and the adoption of a lifestyle choice are all synonymous with these so-called “amateur” athletes – but do the means justify the ends? Are the interdependent beliefs of both the players and management creating a ‘smoke and mirrors’, illusion negating the pursuit of the common goal?

Track your mind back to September 2015: Galway had just been beaten in the All-Ireland final by the hurling heavyweight that is Kilkenny; the logical trail of thought would go along the lines of “right, we need to reassess and come back stronger next year.” At first, it appeared to take place, as Anthony Cunningham was ratified as Galway hurling manager for 2016 – however, the polar opposite was occurring behind closed doors. The players felt in their own right to cast a vote of “no confidence” on Cunningham’s appointment. This led to a strenuous and disparaging few weeks, and ultimately Cunningham’s departure on 28th November. In his departing statement his disdain reverberated throughout, describing the decision as “a kangaroo court decision,” and that the management team were being shown “scant respect.” The most noteworthy part of this statement was this question: “how else could we have reached a winning position in an All-Ireland final last September?”

With regard to Mayo footballers, the above decision is the same: Having reached the All-Ireland semi-final in 2015, subsequently taking the so-called “team of the century” in Dublin to a replay, a vote of no-confidence from the players against joint managers Pat Holmes & Noel Connolly ensued.

With the recent reformed heroic efforts in the initial and replayed All-Ireland finals, you would believe that all was in good order: quite the opposite, in my view. The decision by Stephen Rochford and his management team to replace David Clarke with Robert Hennelly was completely unwarranted. It was an uncharacteristic choice, given that Clarke had not conceded any direct goal from a Dublin player, and that Hennelly had not started a championship game all summer; the idiom “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” certainly comes to mind.

That said, success will eventually come for these squads; both pride themselves on well-structured youth coaching, and these structures are certainly paying off. Mayo footballers defeated a much-fancied Cork side in the u21 All-Ireland Football final, while Galway u21 hurlers reached the u21 hurling final, succumbing to an outstanding Waterford side.

Thus, it certainly is not all doom and gloom in this reflective time for Mayo and Galway GAA fanatics, as the younger generation prospering now will certainly contribute to both camps in the future; however, trust and loyalty must be expressed both verbally and practically in tandem between management and players. With these reforms taken on board, the aura surrounding the big Connacht rugby triumph will reverberate throughout both counties in all sports.