Breaking new ground
Gavin insists he will bring 'a full strength' squad to Ravenhill
ULSTER Rugby's home at Ravenhill in East Belfast is an odd spot for Jim Gavin to be articulating his opposition to the winter training ban for inter-county teams of a Wednesday morning, but these weren't normal circumstances.
In the ground's new stand (a GAA pitch once, apparently, and now by way of corporate branding, officially named 'Kingspan Stadium') Gavin was there to confirm Dublin's presence in the 'Game for Anto' an event to raise awareness of Motor Neurone Disease, the brain child of former Antrim senior captain and MND sufferer, Anto Finnegan.
Dublin will play an Ulster selection, made up of those chosen by The Irish News in their Ulster All Star Awards, managed by Joe Kernan and Brian McEniff, in Ravenhill on Saturday, November 15
As Gavin speaks, Ulster and Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson, seemingly oblivious, has emptied a bag of balls onto the pitch below and is proceeding to bounce grubber kicks off one of the goal posts from about 20 metres away.
Earlier, Stormont's Minister for Sport, Carál Ní Chuilín ribbed Gavin about getting another crack at keeping tabs on Ryan McHugh.
"The 15th of November. We had to get special dispensation from Croke Park," explained the Dublin boss, given the game will fall during Dublin's period of forced inactivity.
"Anto has been working on that with Pádraic Duffy, another great Ulster man, to get us approval to play outside of the close season. We don't get back collectively training until early December, and that was going to be the case anyway.
"I'm not in favour of Croke Park putting bans on teams. I don't think it's right," Gavin added. "I think, almost without exception, inter-county managers at the elite level have a very good working knowledge of sports science and certainly my players will have their own individual programmes with their county and with their club.
"We won't go back collectively regardless of any restrictions on collective training until December. It just happens that this game will be part of our close season. So we're just delighted to get the chance to come to Antrim to play this game."
There were other titbits from Gavin, such as his belief that "a new format was needed" for the Championship to ensure more games for everyone, when asked about Leinster Council's plan to explore the possibility of a round-robin for the 2016 Delaney Cup competition.
"My take on the championship format is there has to be more games, he said.
"That's the bottom line. It's unacceptable that teams might only play two games considering the preparation that goes into it so we all acknowledge a new format is needed. Change is constant, we see it in society and in our own sport we need to move ahead and change as well."
Yet the day and Gavin's thoughts were predominantly about the 'Game For Anto'. And not just because the Dublin boss conducted a sort of end-of-year-review set of interviews as recently as last Wednesday.
It is, we were told, the first time Dublin have played in Belfast for 20 years, since the 1994 National League when Gavin himself was a player.
According to the Dublin boss, the game has been "around 12 months in the making," and clearly, the hope was that Dublin wouldn't just be bringing their "best team," as Gavin put it, but also Sam Maguire.
Yet there was a tangible excitement in Ravenhill yesterday, not least because of the sense that the relevant parties; Dublin GAA, Ulster GAA and Ulster rugby, breaking bread together for a charitable cause was both progressive and noble.
"We wanted to do a big event this year," outlined Finnegan himself in relation to his deterMND Trust, established last year to raise funds for research and patient care for those afflicted with Motor Neurone Disease.
"With the closure of Casement we wanted to make sure it was going to be unique, which matches the condition itself and the reality of it," stressed Finnegan.
"We thought that if Kingspan Stadium was open to it, that would tie in well with the unique element.
"When we approached Ulster Rugby about it, they said 'yes' straight away.
"All we needed to do was come up with dates and times to make sure everything tied together. All in all, it wasn't a hard sell for Ulster Rugby, they welcomed us in with open arms and hopefully the 15th of November we will be able to repay them with a full stadium."
Gavin, meanwhile, said Dublin had "no hesitation" about accepting Finnegan's invitation.
"From hearing about his story, we are the same age, he's got two kids, I've got two kids," he explained.
"Seeing how he is dealing with his illness, it's inspirational really.
"MND is terminal and very sad but to see how composed and determined he is.
"He's one of life's heroes. For him to take on such a debilitating illness and try and leave a legacy of not only making the public more aware but also through fundraising," added Gavin.
"Whatever support we can give to Anto his wife and family and the GAA community, we are just privileged to be involved," Dublin football manager Gavin concluded.
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