Tomorrow at 2pm some of Ireland’s most promising Gaelic footballers will take to the fields of Harrow School in north-west London as part of a European Legion team which will face the next generation of Aussie Rules greats in the annual Easter Series.
Tadhg Kennelly, he of Listowel and Sydney fame, is the man providing the guiding light for the European selection which will include players from six of the 21 countries on the continent affiliated to the AFL. A week-long camp will offer a glimpse into the life of a pro athlete for the players. There was an intra-squad game two days ago as well, tomorrow includes a test against the best U18s from Oz and a tour of Wembley Stadium.
Good luck to them, one and all.
What is hard to figure out is the complete absence of wailing and hollering from the GAA ‘heartlands’. Surely, in the long history of recent events that could have been designed to get the backs up of the merchants of gloom, this must be right up there with the most apocalyptic of visions. Like, where are the instinctive knee-jerk reactions, the phone calls to Joe or the Prime Time special? It isn’t all that long ago since the ‘talent drain’ of our teenage players to the professional ranks in the southern hemisphere was being described as an epidemic. Some county secretaries were breathing fire and brimstone in their annual reports and the International Series was viewed suspiciously as some sort of sporting Trojan Horse in which the next Colm Cooper or Bernard Brogan would be whisked away back to Oz.
Have we really come so far in so short a period that something like tomorrow’s shindig in the British capital should pass with barely the blink of a jaundiced eye? In fairness, the replacement of the caricature that was Ricky Nixon by Kennelly as the face of Aussie recruitment has undoubtedly made a difference.
Kennelly dubbed the old way of doing business as “filthy” in the Irish Examiner last December. “I just really wanted to centralise the whole thing,” he explained. “When I was away and over there and I heard clubs doing things behind backs and it was all back door. I just didn’t like the process when it happened and I met with the GAA and the AFL together and I said, ‘look I really want to centralise this’.”
Kudos for that but it is still a case of the Aussies coming over here to cherry pick what they believe to be the best of our young talent pool. Yet there hasn’t been a peep about it. The very venue itself would have been enough to raise the hackles of a good many of our brethren in the not-so-distant past.
Harrow School is one of the pillars of the British ‘Establishment’. Its pupils potter about in straw hats and morning suits. Its alumni, the Old Harrovians, include at least seven British PMs, but the likes of Tipperary’s Colin O’Riordan will be doing his thing on the very same turf this weekend. Extraordinary, when you think of it.
And yet, perfectly normal, of course.
That it falls towards the end of President Michael D Higgins’ historic state visit to the UK seems about right, but then we still have the issue of what is essentially a recruiting station for the AFL being ignored by the very same people who condemned the dastardly Aussies for having the cheek to come over here and offer our kids the chance to play a professional sport in one of the most attractive countries in the world.
Have they all passed away? Or emigrated? Or what? Obviously not. Many of those belonging to ‘the-world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart’ crowd gave their vocal chords a good airing this last week or so with the revelation that Sky had been offered 14 exclusively live championship games for the next three years under the GAA’s broadcasting deal. Hands were wrung and brows furrowed for the soul of the association and the old age pensioner living alone in deepest, rural Ireland with only the four channels who was held up as its living embodiment.
What all this demonstrates yet again is this country’s flair for the overly-dramatic, the fact that change will always be chased away with a pitchfork by some but, more than anything, that the world will still be turning and the sun shining when we open our eyes tomorrow morning and on the day the first live Sky game is beamed into our Irish homes and beyond.
As with all those fears of an Aussie exodus, this too shall pass.