JOHN FOGARTY: What is the International Rules end game for Australia?

What is the Rules end game for Aussies?

More than half-empty or less than half-full, the 25,502 crowd in the 53,500-capacity Adelaide Oval pretty much summed up views on the International Rules.

That’s not to be said the AFL didn’t put on a show. There was a DJ who did his best to cultivate a party atmosphere. It helped that he was complemented by a drummer. 

Throw a saxophone in and it might as well have been Ibiza given the intense heat. 

An overenthusiastic if uninformed MC also engaged with the crowd. 

A rundown on the rules was provided, which is the norm now since there have only been nine such tests so far this decade.

There was also a highlights reel of previous series played on the big screens, which were considerably Australia-positive. It included a clip of the Jack Russell hilariously intervening for possession of the ball during the second test in 2004.

If they had researched a little more, they might have found footage of another canine breed doing something similar during the first test in Galway two years later.

Next to the violence of yesteryear, it’s that dog of endeavour which many associate with the International Rules. 

That doesn’t say much for the hybrid sport but when the teams don’t meet often enough to establish a keen rivalry, when fans are struggling to identify players from the opposing team, when there are so many from each organisation that would prefer if there was more focus on Australian Rules and Gaelic football, the likelihood of parody increases.

Marc Ó Sé’s heavy criticism of the concept in his Irish Mail on Sunday column at the weekend won’t have been appreciated by his brother Darragh who is a selector with Joe Kernan here at the moment. 

“If the club is truly the pillar of the association then it should be in no way undermined for the benefit of a small number of elite players playing a bastardised game with a dodgy past and a non-existent future,” write Marc.

The irony about Ó Sé’s remarks is that the club has never had a stronger hand in relation to International Rules.

There was no question that the club was going to be priority of Paul Kerrigan as well as the likes of James McCarthy, Diarmuid Connolly and Darren and Kieran Hughes. International Rules is no longer facilitated at the expense of the club. An Adelaide Advertiser columnist last week likened the club-first policy in the AFL to the situation in the GAA, although such a comparison is hardly appropriate given loyalty comes in the form of a cheque here in Oz (members of the Australian panel are also paid a fee for representing their country).

Ó Sé’s sentiments, though, are shared by a growing number in Australia, where indifference has changed to opposition now that so many of the sport’s best performers are involved and run the risk of injury. That Pearce Hanley and Scott Pendlebury picked up injuries, if not significant ones, will strengthen the unease AFL clubs have with allowing their top men to represent their country.

But there’s also a sense here that the AFL have missed the boat with International Rules. Sports journalist Stephen Quartermain, who co-commentated with Ger Canning in 2006, remarked on Sunday: “Mixed feelings about the International Rules between Australia and Ireland. It’s probably past its use-by date.”

The Adelaide Sunday Mail’s Chris McDermott expanded: “Crowds of over 80,000 (in Ireland) turned up. The Aussies got to experience one of the great environments in the world in Croke Park and the series started to gain some popularity. Unfortunately, that’s where it ended. No-one had the vision of how to take it further.

“It may have attracted a flood of Irishmen to Australia to have a crack at our game but that’s all and that didn’t please the Irish. Tensions were strained and the game collapsed. It was rebuilt, but it has never been the same. We blew it. End of story. The game as it stands today is over. This may be the last time we see it.”

That’s not the case if GAA director general Páraic Duffy’s words, carried in today’s Irish Examiner, are to be believed. A test in the US could be on the cards next year or in 2019 but the GAA should be mindful that the AFL truly only desire such a development to expand interest in their game in the States.

But to generate interest or at least pique the curiosity of Americans, they will require Irish expats in the US to make up most of a crowd to illustrate that what they’re doing is actually worth watching. 

What will be in it for the GAA but a novelty and another opportunity for players to represent their country? Will that be enough?

The GAA’s interests in this concept have most often been genuine and wholesome but the more the AFL push for the US, the more it appears the International Rules is a loss leader for them. 

A marketing tool that they would be happy to discard when the time is right. Already, the AFL stage a Premiership round game in China. The GAA must be careful not to be used as a pawn in a bigger game.

Travelling extra mile to promote your sport

Last Tuesday was a remarkable day for Irish sport in Melbourne as it was an immensely proud one for the city and how they work together to make their greatest racing day such a phenomenal success.

To ensure ease of movement, as much as to celebrate the Melbourne Cup, there was free travel on several trains and trams. 

The same is done for other large sports events like September’s AFL Grand Final in the Melbourne Cricket Grounds. 

That indelible link adds to the occasion as well as the bonhomie that prevails.

Although there will be no problem shifting tickets in Perth this Saturday as the city says goodbye to the Subiaco Oval before the bulldozers come in, the AFL’s promotion of Sunday’s first test in Adelaide seemed a tad tardy given they were flogging tickets at less than $12 a few days before the game. 

All the same, there was free transport on trams for anyone who produced a ticket for the match.

Such joined-up thinking reflects why Australia, notwithstanding its oh-so conducive climate, is the sporting nation that it is.

Ireland can learn a lot from that. Might the IRFU have considered free travel in areas close to venues as part of the Rugby World Cup 2023 bidding package? 

Might the GAA be able to work with the likes of Irish Rail and Dublin Bus that there is at least a subsidised rate for match-goers on the All-Ireland final days?

With the finals being moved to earlier dates next year closer to peak tourism time in Dublin, supporters will have to fork out more to stay in the capital. Every little to help them will be welcome. 

The Aussies have shown, at least in terms of transport, the supply-demand relationship needn’t be so unhealthy.

Who’d be on your best ever Rules XV?

The 40-year anniversary of the first trip by AFL players to Ireland prompted AFL veteran and member of the International Rules’ technical group Kevin Sheahan to select his best Australian IR team of all time. 

The late Jim Stynes made the grade as did the likes of the infamous Chris Johnson who knocked Irish players like they were skittles in 2005. 

The larger-than-life Robert “The Big Dipper” DiPierdomenico also made it, as well as “Big Boy” Barry Hall.

So who makes Ireland’s best 15? 

I can suggest a team based on the series I have covered since 2003. Four of the current group make the cut and it probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Conor McManus, Michael Murphy, and Zach Tuohy were among the top performers in Sunday’s first test in Adelaide while Pearce Hanley’s performance was truncated by breaking his hand in the second quarter. 

Aidan O’Shea is selected on their interchange bench.

So, our team: Stephen Cluxton (Dublin); Sean Marty Lockhart (Derry), Ciarán McKeever (Armagh), Anthony Lynch (Cork); Graham Canty (Cork), Kieran McGeeney (Armagh), Zach Tuohy (Laois/Geelong Cats); Seán Cavanagh (Tyrone), Tadhg Kennelly (Kerry/Sydney Swans); Leighton Glynn (Wicklow), Pearce Hanley (Mayo/Gold Coast Suns), Benny Coulter (Down); Steven McDonnell (Armagh), Michael Murphy (Donegal), Conor McManus (Monaghan). Interchanges: Seamus Moynihan (Kerry), Ciarán McManus (Offaly), Dessie Dolan (Westmeath), Pádraic Joyce (Galway), Colm Begley (Laois), Trevor Giles (Meath), Aidan O’Shea (Mayo), Jack McCaffrey (Dublin).

Manager: Seán Boylan (Meath).

john.fogarty@examiner.ie


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