Gareth Fox

GARETH FOX: The dark arts

I WAS first made aware of the term ‘The Dark Arts’ in sport in a post-game interview given by Paul O’Connell. I was in my teens and was fascinated by his summation of an international defeat being down to Ireland’s inability to match the opposition in the dark arts. And from then, I’ve watched sport with a keen eye on spotting what sounds like a mystical occurrence.

We describe it as craftiness, as cuteness, and we picture a specific group of GAA players who are proficient in this magic. Let’s be honest, craftiness is a kind cover-up for un-sporstmanly behaviour, rule breaking and cheating. It’s a manipulation of the rules to gain an advantage; the majority of the time it involves conning the referee – and it works.

Games can be won through the cuteness of individuals (or the team as a whole), but the big question I often ask myself is, is it necessary? A coach once said to me “every winning team needs a cheat” – the type of person I am, I’d like to think this isn’t true.

But there are examples of it everywhere. From Henry’s handball against Ireland, to rugby’s own ‘Hand of God’ from Neil Back against Munster. The Dark Arts work, but again, are they necessary. And are there any repercussions?

In professional sport, their impact is waning. Use of in-play video analysis is clamping down on cheating, and heavily punishing players who continue to use them. Numerical disadvantage goes against you more times than not. But in GAA, there is no in-play video back-up, and officials are often conned.

I watched a club championship match recently, and saw the dark arts in broad daylight. I smiled as I watched the officials manipulated by the dark arts time and time again. Certain players craftily winning frees, scores from nothing, momentum changing, game-changing moments that show that the dark arts are beneficial. But to what end?

You only have to Google The Dark Side and see a plethora of quotes from the Star Wars film series, to know that it’s not somewhere you want to go. “Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will,” says Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. You see, the thing about the dark arts is, once you pass a certain reliance it’s very difficult to come back.

There’s another film quote I love from a pretty awful Brad Pitt zombie movie.

“Sometimes the thing you thought to be the most brutal thing about the virus actually turns out to be the chink in its armour. She loves disguising her weakness as strength.” What gains you an advantage can quite often be your downfall.

It all comes back to focus – what are you prioritising? We only have a finite bandwidth of what we can hold in our attention, and if you are prioritising how you can be cute, then what are you neglecting? Chances are, you are neglecting what’s really important.

If you have 100 units of focus, and 90 of them are being used to manipulate your opponent or the officials, then only 10 are going towards executing the basics – and it’s a slippery slope.

It’s very difficult to rebalance the scales once you’ve moved them. And this is where ill-discipline creeps in. This is where arguing and fighting takes over.

So are they necessary? Who knows? And can there be repercussions? The popularity of the Star Wars franchise surely gives the answer.

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