THE spate of cruciate injuries over the last two years has the GAA rightly worried. Insurance-wise, the amount of surgery needed is, no pun intended, crippling.
With Dermot Earley’s knee breaking down for the second time in a year, Kildare will see their premium jump again as they count the cost of a sixth inter-county operation in the last 15 months.
There are plenty more inter-county footballers and hurlers out there who are delaying the surgery as much as they can. Earley did it himself before, building the muscle around the joint to compensate for the cruciate problem, before he could take no more.
His manager Kieran McGeeney gave him the idea, doing something similar during his playing career with Armagh. Mayo’s Conor Mortimer too but he relented this year and is currently sidelined as he goes through an extensive rehab programme.
The reasons for the increased number of these injuries over the last couple of years are uncertain. Experts have suggested a whole range of factors from artificial pitches to poor footgear to the type of training being done at inter-county level.
But certainly when a prominent U21 manager like Kerry’s John Kennedy is warning that his players are weak, alarm bells should be going off.
It’s doesn’t appear to be coincidental either that the majority of cruciate injuries appear to be sustained in the early part of the season when players are attempting to combine strength and conditioning programmes along with football training and, of course, games.
Again, as each day passes the more and more the GPA and GAA’s medical, scientific and welfare (MSW) committee’s plan to introduce a mandatory pre-Christmas strength and conditioning training window sounds the best way forward.
But what can the players do to avoid cruciate injuries? Wear knee braces? Prevention is better than cure, right?
Don’t rule it out. With the advances being made in protective sports gear, the sight of an inter-county player wearing pads on both knees could become a more common occurrence.
Last week, St Brigid’s, Offaly footballer Anthony Foy launched a new range of protective gear, high tech lightweight garments in Ireland. Unlike the cold and hot under garments worn these days, they could turn out to be more than just discretionary pieces of gear.
Evoshield gear is predominantly worn by American football and baseball teams in the US but it would appear extreme that players in Gaelic games might have to resort to purchasing such clothing.
But with the demands on players showing no let up, the natural tendency is to protect one’s self.
By extension, Gaelic games is teetering on becoming more like other sports in the amount of gear required to play them safely.
That’s the worry but it’s a real one. Already, mandatory wearing of gum-shields are on the way in Gaelic football for GAA insurance purposes if nothing else. The GPA have made them available gratis to their members. Not just any boil-and-bite gum-shields – but the moulded ones.
But what about the average club footballer? That is perhaps the biggest conundrum facing the GAA in this whole area – how much can they espouse the virtues of being suited up to avoid injury before they make the games too expensive to play.
At Congress last year, Cork secretary Frank Murphy spoke out against a Mayo motion calling for gum-shields to be made mandatory in all games and training sessions up to and including minor level.
The proposal was eventually withdrawn pending a report by the GAA’s MSW committee but Murphy’s argument was the growing number of compulsory playing equipment.
He was referring to helmets, which have been made mandatory in hurling since the start of last year. Head gear in hurling is a, again pardon the pun, no-brainer but has certainly impacted on the profile of the game’s best players and, in turn, the great game itself.
How ironic that Sean Og O hAilpin and Ken McGrath, two of the most iconic faces who for the most part refused to wear helmets before they were made to, have left the game a season after they were masked.
But in protecting their players the GAA is facing a real identity crisis. The more gear that is permitted to be worn the less recognisable their games become.
How long will it be before a player is seen to be wearing shoulder pads under their jersey? You can imagine how that will go down with traditionalists.
They would have a point too. As manly as Gaelic football and hurling are, they are primarily about skill. If that element of the game is driven further out of the game then it is the GAA’s duty to enshrine it.
Right now, they are facing a balancing act in ensuring they do everything they can to prevent recurrent injuries to their players while preventing the game from becoming cost prohibitive and aping other sports.
The question for Gaelic games is no longer what they are but what are they becoming?