JOHN FOGARTY: Flawed International Rules Series matters to the players involved

For the players involved International Rules Series, the trip to Australia means an awful lot, writes John Fogarty

This Tuesday’s offering comes to you from a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, south of Sri Lanka and the Equator.

Typed on and by the light of iPhone — we wrongly assumed we had booked an emergency exit seat.

Filed via laptop upon arrival in Melbourne, the initial base for Ireland International Rules team.

What follows isn’t a justification of the, we won’t say, biennial Series because it’s not even that anymore. It’s a mouthful but the whenever-the-Australians-are-bothered series would be more precise. Twice this decade they’ve postponed for varying reasons while the previous suspension came as a result of their flagrant disregard for discipline.

Ireland’s attitude has always been “have boots, will travel”. That there are no Dubliners on this flight doesn’t belittle this year’s competition when the Australians are without any of their 2017 best Richmond.

That Australia last week relaxed their All-Australian only rule, which was part of the last two Series, to All-Australian nominees highlighted that they too have had difficulties with player availability.

If the absence of some Dublin players like James McCarthy and Diarmuid Connolly and others like Paul Kerrigan and Darren Hughes for this Series is largely because of club activity it shows that the GAA are getting their priorities straight. It wasn’t so long ago that provincial councils wouldn’t think twice about adjusting fixtures to facilitate Rules players still involved in clubs. Conor McManus was actually Ireland’s star player in Perth three years ago having only arrived days beforehand along with Chrissy McKaigue after their clubs’ Ulster semi-final.

Sitting two rows over on this plane, young Seán Powter helped Douglas to an U21 Cork football title the evening before this flight.

Sleep doesn’t come easily to many of the players on this Boeing 777. They are the privileged 23 men selected by Joe Kernan but it sure is a long way to travel for two games never mind the one in 2014, which Mayo’s Colm Boyle admitted on Newstalk on Saturday was “anti-climatic” given the six weeks of preparation the players had put in.

Joe Kernan
Joe Kernan

According to one current player, the training for this year’s matches has been “hugely intensive” as much as it’s amounted to Friday evenings and Saturday mornings in Abbotstown with a midweek game thrown in for good measure.

This trip comes with other sacrifices too. There are plenty who had to depend on the good graces of their employers. There are others who are simply claiming these two weeks as annual leave. Some may get the chance for some downtime after the second test but there will be a good number who will head home on the following day’s flight because they’ll be back at work on Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest. It’s not for the jolly that they are here when as far as they are concerned there is none.

Australia has its charms but cabin fever is a notorious element of these Series in Oz. Getting to live like professionals for a couple of weeks might appear thrilling on paper but the boredom associated with rest and relaxation can be a killer. One player on the last tour reckoned he and his room-mate watched games from every round of the 2014 AFL season on the AFL channel because they had nothing better to do. Such experiences are why the GAA organisers have broken up the trip with the initial three days in Melbourne and a camp outside Perth in the lead-up to the second test.

We have asked ourselves more than once why the players do it. Why they would commit to participating in a sport that is largely held in contempt or, at best, indifference at home. Why go to all this trouble when the only mention of it for the guts of a year apart from its postponement to this year was a throwaway line by the Hollywood actor Eric Bana on The Late Late Show this past February when he highlighted the round ball, Gaelic field and goals were major advantages to Ireland?

As simple and as trite as it might sound, it’s the jersey. It’s Ireland. It’s standing to attention for the entirety of Amhrán na bhFiann because, especially on foreign soil, it means something different. It’s the long-held determination to attain the bragging rights over professional sportsmen. It’s about pride (we know we’re bordering on the twee there). But as the Railway Cup’s slow but steady decline continues, this is Gaelic football’s greatest representative honour even if it’s not Gaelic football.

There is obviously more at stake for the Ireland rugby and Republic of Ireland soccer teams later this week but don’t use those matches as sticks with which to beat these players. They’ve come a long way both geographically and metaphorically to compete. Even if it’s a concept that has its flaws, for them it’s worth the early alarm clock call this Sunday morning.

Attack best form of defence Down Under

Writing before the previous International Rules test two years ago, we maintained that it had a future from a GAA perspective as long as it was a mirror for Gaelic football. The 2014 test in Perth illustrated just how inferior Ireland’s team were as kickers to the Australians who had only swapped their Sheerin for our O’Neills in the weeks leading up to the game.

There was a vast improvement in the Irish kicking performance when they regained the Cormac McAnallen Cup in 2015 but there will be even more of an onus on that department of their game this time around, particularly in the second test when the Australians will have grown more accustomed to the round ball. How Ireland deal with the heat will also be a prime factor — they could be playing in 34C in Adelaide on Sunday. As well as a reflection of Gaelic football, the hybrid game also serves as a sepia-tinged image of what it was once like. An Instagram, if you will.

After all, Adelaide and Perth will be 15-on-15 games. Joe Kernan hasn’t been afraid to let that cat out of the bag — “I think it’s the way to play this. If we give these boys space, they are going to hit short passes, they are going to get into the D and we’re going to be in trouble. So we’re going to beat them, we’re going to put them under pressure all over the field and if we win the ball, we’ll hit the spaces.”

The opposition have let it be known too that they will be adopting an attacking philosophy.

The hope is Dublin’s continued dominance will prompt an era of expansive Gaelic football but in the short term the sweeper-less International Rules Series will give us a taste.

Winter ban sure to change in new era

As the inter-county season squeeze continues, the news over the last couple of weeks that Leinster and Munster will begin their pre-season competitions on December 30 shouldn’t startle anybody.

Neither should it surprise many that Waterford hurlers, given they like Galway can’t officially return to collective training until December 29, have pulled out of the Munster Senior Hurling League while the involvement of a full-strength Galway team in the Walsh Cup may be diminished because they will be on their team holiday.

It remains to be seen what those counties’ attitude to the pre-season competitions are, given they are likely to be away on team holiday like Dublin, who are again expected to put out a development side in the O’Byrne Cup.

Had January fallen on the weekend instead of the following Monday, the councils likely wouldn’t have fixed 2018 games for December but it does raise questions about just how much tighter things can get.

If the suggestions that Tipperary intend to make the most out of their forthcoming Super 11s trip to Boston and organise training sessions there come to pass, it will raise an eyebrow or two especially as their winter collective training moratorium doesn’t end until December 8.

But then the inter-county winter ban is already likely to be altered in 2018 given all but the two football finalists will have their season completed in August and by 2019 all will have done so.


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