JOHN FOGARTY: International Rules: This Aussie coach means business

We’re not going to try and sell you Saturday’s International Rules game, writes John Fogarty.

There mightn’t be anything to flog after the weekend. We might just be here to chronicle the concept’s swansong by Perth’s Swan river.

When the GAA have acquiesced to virtually everything but the ball being made oval one can’t help thinking if the home team don’t win it then they never will. An amateur sport shouldn’t have to afford such liberties to a professional side.

It’s no surprise then that the Ireland players have been told almost everywhere they go in Melbourne that they will only be turning up in Patersons Stadium. The Aussies mean business. Oh, goody gumdrops. Sorry if we sigh an “at last”.

The locals’ chatter is actually insulting to a visiting group who thrive on upsetting the odds. Three years ago, it was Ireland vice-captain Ciaran McKeever who indulged in some brilliantly wicked sledging with his opposite number as the Australians were beaten out the gate. “And you’re supposed to be the professionals?” he cried.

Actually, what might be the more interesting aspect in four days’ time is not who’s on the field of play but who’s standing just off it. Australian coach Alastair Clarkson is an extraordinary man. Two months ago, he led Hawthorn to their third Premiership title since 2008. Having seen their top player Buddy Franklin move to Sydney Swans last year, it was their sweetest achievement under his reign yet.

Clarkson was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome during the season. The disorder affects the peripheral nervous system and he was laid low for five games before returning to guide them to glory.

But as well as being accomplished Clarkson is a most colourful character. On his Wikipedia page, there is a heading “temperament”. Listed are a number of flashpoints he has been involved in.

As a player in 1987, he was banned for four games after breaking the jaw of Carlton’s Ian Aitken with a punch from behind in an exhibition game in The Oval, London.

As a coach, he’s had a number of run-ins with opponents and walls, putting his fist through one (the latter) in anger last year in the MCG. The AFL made him foot the bill for the damage.

In 2009, he incurred a suspended $5,000 fine for threatening Essendon’s Matthew Lloyd after he seriously injured a Hawthorn player with a foul. In the same game, he also abused a match official. Aitken at the time said Clarkson was “a very angry, small man”. Clarkson afterwards described himself as “a peanut” for not being able to control his emotions.

Yet in July 2012 he was served with another four-match ban from Melbourne’s South Metro Junior Football League for swearing at an umpire during his son’s under-nine team game. Last July, he had to apologise to two Victorian Football League players after a heated verbal exchange at a game. Just two months earlier, he had landed himself in bother for referring to a journalist by a derogatory term.

Clarkson, whatever he does, is box office material. Largely because of him and his appeal among the cream of the AFL crop, it’s with some justification that the Australians can say they are taking things serious this year.

When GAA president Liam O’Neill last year warned “be careful what you wish for” he was predicting the AFL would do everything in their power to this year avoid a third consecutive humiliating series defeat. With Clarkson at the helm, they look ominously strong but if they follow some of his behaviour then there is a threat of fury too.

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About time we ended ref clock-watching

An unusual set of circumstances saw this column given responsibility for time-keeping in Saturday’s International Rules warm-up in Melbourne.

Well, that might be telling a fib. When most of the Irish press corps plonk themselves in Sandringham Football Ground’s time-keeping box and make it their workspace, it’s a likely eventuality. And when yours truly was the closest to the siren button, it just made sense to push it when required.

Three presses for two minute warnings, two for one minute warnings, there was quite a lot of noise although the extra duty wasn’t taxing (despite our best efforts, the umpire — referee to you and me — started the game two minutes early).

Reporting on Saturday’s game wasn’t too taxing either when really all it amounted to was totting up Ireland’s scores. And yet the time-keeping was an interesting exercise in considering just how many responsibilities are put on our referees.

After a delay because of logistical issues encountered earlier this year which will require motions at Congress in February, the public clock/hooter will come into force later next season. There had been some reservations about taking from the authority of referees but it’s clear too much is on their plates.

With new rules added this year, the last thing an International Rules umpire needs is to be keep an eye on his watch. Our own referees will benefit likewise when this burden, not responsibility, is off their shoulders.

With proper marketing GAA could be in clover

A working trip to Australia also provides an opportunity to catch up with old acquaintances. Melbourne has long been the home of Urlingford’s John Guilfoyle, who former Kilkenny players will tell you might have challenged PJ Ryan as James McGarry’s goalkeeping successor had he remained at home.

John, though, has carved out a great life in Australia. Together with his work colleagues, Cavan man Colm Connolly and Shane McKeown of Monaghan, he was a excellent tour guide to jetlagged journalists on Friday. All three men have immersed themselves in Melbourne life but home remains home. For them and so many other ex-pats, the greater access to Gaelic games Down Under has been hugely welcomed and it was impressive just how knowledgeable they were about the season past.

When the GAA released details of their Championship media rights package last April, they were criticised for providing Australia and not the US with live and deferred coverage on terrestrial television.

However, the decision is already showing signs of promise in this country. Australians themselves don’t know what exactly to make of hurling but it’s clear there is more than a passing curiosity, while the Irish here are being made to feel like they count. If both markets continue to be fostered, the GAA will be in clover.


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