Down Under turned game on its head

The announcement this week that the GAA will send a team of its best players to Australia to play International Rules against a team of Australian footballers in 2017 marks 50 years of engagement between the two sports.
Down Under turned game on its head

The idea for such an engagement was shaped from the snow of a black-and-white portable TV.

In early 1967, Harry Beitzel was sitting in his shed in Melbourne, relaxing in front of the TV, after mowing the lawn.

He was watching sports when he came across a re- broadcast of that year’s All-Ireland football final between Meath and Cork.

And, as any entrepreneur worthy of the name, he looked at the screen and saw the chance to make money.

His idea was glorious in its clarity: assemble the finest Australian Rules players and fly them across the world to take on the best of Ireland’s Gaelic footballers at their own game.

Money would then logically flow in great torrents from the pockets of an Irish public goaded into supporting local heroes against semi-professional invaders – or so Beitzel imagined.

Beitzel had deep connections with Australian Rules Football, a game in which he had served as a legendary umpire. He was that game’s youngest ever senior referee, having taken charge of a 1948 match at the age of 21, and had gone on to referee the 1955 Grand Final (the Australian equivalent of the All-Ireland final).

By the mid-1960s, he was running his own public relations and management consultancy firm, and was a well-known TV pundit and match commentator.

By the 1960s, Australian rules football was semi-professional and the strongest League was the Victoria Football League (VFL) centred on Melbourne. There was a healthy and understandable scepticism about any attempt to forge an overseas alliance, particularly given that there was still not even a national league within Australia.

Further, the first attempt to combine Australian Rules with another sport did not involve Gaelic football, but American football. During World War II, the game of Austus was devised in Melbourne by locals and American soldiers stationed there.

An unlikely marriage was made between the kicking skills of the Australia game and the throwing patterns of American football. The union did not survive the war – the experiment was an absolute failure.

Beitzel’s initiative initially seemed unlikely to move beyond the confines of his shed.

The GAA, as prospective hosts, were unenthusiastic. His friends in the VFL offered little more than a supportive nod to the tour. Nor was there any support from corporate Australia and Beitzel was effectively left to raise his own finance.

The players, on the other hand, were thrilled by the idea of a trip to another world and, despite some clubs prohibiting their players from travelling, the cream of the VFL crop made the trip.

They were led by the legendary footballer, Ron Barassi, who was selected as captain and coach. He gathered together a group of Irish emigrants to help tutor his players in a game which many had scarcely seen before.

On the eve of their departure on 22 October 1967, the Australians beat a motley crew of Irish men in a final practice match. But the victory was a very narrow one and the Irish men who played in the game confidently predicted that the touring team would be hammered in Dublin.

The following day, for a cavalcade through the streets of Melbourne, the Australian team donned the uniform that was to provide them with their nickname. As well as slacks and blazers, the players also wore slough hats, adorned with shimmering plumes.

Accordingly, the were dubbed “The Galahs”, in honour of the cockatoo of the same name – though many others were to point to the common use of ‘galah’ as slang for fools and idiots.

The team flew to Ireland and were fixed to play the All-Ireland champions, Meath, on a Sunday and the Connacht champions, Mayo, the following Saturday.

On 28 October, the day before the Meath game, The Galahs played the Civil Service club team and scraped a narrow victory.

The rules used in this and all the matches were identical to Gaelic football, except that the Australians could hop the ball repeatedly when on a solo run.

The Australians made other changes, too. According to Peter Burke, the Australian team used ‘Waltzing Matilda’ as their anthem at matches, rather than the then Australian anthem of ‘God Save the Queen’, and did not fly the Union Jack-dominated Australian flag on the tour, “in deference to the strong anti-British strain of Gaelic football.”

Sensitivities to their hosts supposed political preferences was deemed unlikely to lead to any sympathy on the field. All the predictions were that Meath would clean out the Australians and claim victory in Croke Park.

Yet, when the Meath players arrived onto the field, the Australians considered some as being too small and weak, and others as being overweight. The Australians were getting to grips with the skills of the game – slowly, but insistently – but it was their conditioning that offered them greatest hope. They immediately sought to attack the Meath men, using speed and strength.

Employing superior fitness, athleticism and stamina, but also a dazzling combination of short handpassing and long punting, they destroyed the All-Ireland champions. The final score was 3-16 to 1-10.

The Gaelic world was stunned by the reversal of their champions. At an official reception after the game, the President of the GAA, Séamus Ó Riain, told the Meath team that they had “played the game as they know it and went under to a team which played as you don’t know it. We will have to put our thinking caps on.” The downside for the Australians was the poor crowd. The GAA had neither interest in, nor experience of, marketing and only 20,000 had turned up. It was not enough to cover Beitzel’s expenses.

D

riven by the need to make more money, he flew his players to Crystal Palace in London for an exhibition game of Australian Rules played under Tuesday night lights.

A decent crowd drew in some extra money.

The Australians flew back to Dublin to play Mayo – considered the second best team in the country – the following Saturday afternoon. Over 23,000 people turned up to see Gaelic football claim its revenge. It wasn’t to be. Mayo led for much of the first half, but were eventually well-beaten by 2-12 to 2-5.

For the Australians, the tour had been a sporting success, but a monetary disappointment. The public who had attended the matches were enthralled by the skills of the visitors, but were too few in number to cover the expense of the voyage.

Beitzel needed to make more money. He took his players from Croke Park to Dublin airport and onto a specially-arranged flight to New York. The following afternoon, his team ran out onto Gaelic Park in the Bronx to meet the pick of New York’s Gaelic footballers.

The exiled Gaels were determined to avenge the defeats of their countrymen. A lightning start by the Aussies made that seem unlikely, but the New York team slowly ground down their opponents, restricted the Australians to just five points and ran out comfortable winners.

The Irish did not just win on the scoreboard. Various members of the Australian team later recalled that the New York Irish were the toughest men they had ever met on a pitch. The match – in particular, the second half – had been a brutal affair. A mass brawl between the two teams rolled up and down the field after an Australian player had his jaw broken in two places.

Even as calm was restored, Brendan Tumulty, then a policeman in New York, broke his hand while breaking Ron Barassi’s nose with a punch and another fracas ensued. Tumulty was later quoted as saying that the players of both sides had got to know each other much better in the waiting room of St. Joseph’s Hospital. He and Barassi, in particular, became close friends.

Then the Australians flew on to California and Hawaii for a short-break before returning to Melbourne. Beitzel claimed to have lost $10,000 over the three weeks.

The Meath team was inspired by defeat. Under the iconic Peter McDermott they learned from the Australians, toured the continent the following March and beat the Australians in two test matches. A lovely account of the Meath trip to Australia can be found in Peter McDermott’s book Gaels in the Sun. They were the first of many to head south.

The most obvious result from all this is in the past 50 years, some 50 Gaelic footballers have gone to play Australian Rules. The certainty is that many more will follow in the years to come.

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