Australia’s victories this past two weekends means they are now tied 10 International Series a piece with Ireland, writes John Fogarty.
On the surface, it would seem quite the competition although Ireland might not have had everything their own way in 2011 and 2012 had the AFL not fielded such embarrassingly weak teams. And might Australia have won two years ago had they a second test to exhibit their familiarity with the round ball? Thirteen series to seven would put an entirely different complexion on things.
On the roll of honour, Ireland and Australia may be one but they are not the same. That amateur versus professional binary is obviously at the heart of the concept’s waning general appeal but GAA players must be sick of being the seemingly perennial underdog. Yet that is hardly going to change if the Australians, fair play to them, continue to send out their best.
There’s an innocence in how the GAA approach the International Rules. Last week, we expressed concern about how the AFL want to utilise the GAA’s strength in the US to carve out a piece of the American market for themselves. When that is achieved, what for the International Rules? By most accounts, the AFL are more interested in developing their own abbreviated version of its game, AFLX, than supporting the hybrid game, which is effectively an unrecognisable version of it.
But there’s a purity among the Irish players too. Both in Adelaide and Perth, several of the squad purchased AFL guernseys and other kit more as mementoes of their trip than any affiliation to any one club. Many of their predecessors would have done the same and like them now wouldn’t have been afraid to wear them during their down-time in the cities.
Would the Australian players have been so keen to pick up and don county jerseys on their trips to Ireland? (Granted, November in Ireland doesn’t lend to that, but you get the point).
At the teams’ dinner the Thursday night before the first test, the Australians had a few alcoholic drinks. Ireland did not. Those who wished to imbibe two nights previous in Melbourne with their dinner were permitted but so close to the Saturday game, it was agreed that they wouldn’t in Adelaide. The Australians’ behaviour would raise the subject of there being little issue in having a few beers before a match but then would they have acted in such a way two days out from a regular season game?
After the first test, Australia’s star player Nathan Fyfe was effusive in his praise of the series and spoke about how honoured he was to represent his country. “People are always going to be naysayers in whatever you do,” he said. “This series, it doesn’t attract everyone’s love for it, but this has got the best AFL players in Australia playing and the best Irish players. It’s a pretty high-level spectacle. Any chance I get to pull on this emblem, it’s pretty important.”
But again Fyfe’s sense of pride is different to that say of Gary Brennan who, like so many of his team-mates, took time off work to line out for Ireland. The Irish players were provided with expenses for their time but nothing that could be considered extravagant. On the other hand, Fyfe and his colleagues were remunerated with five-figure appearance fees while there was also talk of their pension funds being boosted for lining out. If, as Brennan says, Gaelic footballers are prepared to go “to Jupiter” to play for their country, the Australians might go to the moon but with the explicit guarantee that they come back.
The Australians tell us a lot but how much of it is spin? The Perth crowd of 30,116 was 8,146 down on three years ago despite this being quite a phenomenal group of players that the Australians put together and the final farewell to the Subiaco Oval. That drop did not dissuade the 7 Mate TV commentary from breathlessly claiming that the attendance underlined the support for the series. In the days before the game, free tickets had been handed out at the local AFL store on Hay Street. The chants of “Olé, Olé, Olé” after the coming together at the half-time buzzer indicated just how dependent the AFL are on Irish expats to put bums on seats too. Certainly, Darragh Ó Sé and Joe Kernan’s criticism of the AFL’s promotion for the first game was accurate.
The Australians may have claimed the series but it’s the GAA and its players who sustain it. The real question, though, is how long can their good nature be taken for granted? What is an International Rules game going to do for Gaelic football in the US if only to confuse people? Of course, it is another opportunity for players to represent Ireland but the opponents are driven by other motivations. They’re not just playing a different game — they’re living it too.
An uneasy funding crossover for GAA and GPA
Because of space constraints, we couldn’t carry all of GAA president Aogán Farrell’s comments about the GPA from our interview conducted in Perth last week.
The tenet of his message was that the GAA contribute only 25% towards salaries in the official inter-county players body, which is fair enough.
We had asked Farrell about the significant central salaries (€921,121 between 12 people) in the GPA as revealed in their annual report, which Colm O’Rourke addressed in his Sunday Independent column the Sunday week last. Farrell said: “The GPA are part of the GAA family, we’ve a very close relationship. They’re not an outside body but they have an independent role. We have a good working relationship with them. I’d be very uncomfortable sitting in this hotel with those players and having a difficult relationship with them. I think that would not be a good place if we were fighting or having a problem with our players.
“I didn’t read the article you’re talking about, I’ve heard people mention something about it. 75% of everything we give to the GPA must be spent on their player development programmes. How they fund their salaries is their own issue.”
However, as they organised the Super 11s on Boston on Sunday following their mega-bucks dinner in New York last month, just how much money are the GPA gleaning from sources in the US that would otherwise or continue to fund counties? The GPA claim they approach a different echelon of benefactors but that is not the case when the same individuals attend functions organised by the GPA and counties Stateside. When that point was made to Farrell, he replied: “If we can control what happens within the GAA, I think we’ll be doing well. How they fund themselves outside of that is their own affair. Any investment from outside into a small island of six million people is good.”
If only it were that simple, that idealistic.
James Horan could make fine Irish manager
As Joe Kernan bows out as Ireland International Rules manager, attention now turns to the future. The Armagh legend would have dearly loved to claim a second successive series win but the fact that so many of his squad were heading to Australia for the first time meant that a win was going to be an almighty task.
However, his successor should reap the benefits of those debuts made either in Adelaide or Perth.
Kieran McGeeney would be an obvious choice to fill Kernan’s shoes but for the fact it would mean two Armagh men in a row and the GAA shy away from picking men who currently hold county managerial positions – although it is no issue for the AFL.
Pádraic Joyce may fancy the role but then he is being mentioned as a possible contender for when Kevin Walsh steps aside in Galway.
Anthony Tohill was one manager who had no inter-county managerial experience prior to being appointed by former GAA president Christy Cooney for the 2010 and ’11 series.
If incoming uachtarán John Horan is thinking along those lines, somebody like ex-captain Graham Canty or Seamus Moynihan could fit the bill. Another former Ireland skipper Steven McDonnell would also be a strong contender.
But if a non-county manager is the preference of Croke Park then former Mayo boss James Horan would appear to be the best choice. An innovative coach, he would seem a fitting pick to regain the Cormac McAnallen Cup from the Australians.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved