Rules engagement should produce a happy marriage
Roll up, roll up for the Aussie express -- any half decent footballer get on board. Maybe it is not quite like that but there are plenty of GAA officials, particularly in Ulster, who seem to fear a mass exodus of all our young talent if the link with Australia is not immediately terminated and all maps burned.
To these people, the International Rules series is the Trojan horse which allows the Aussie scouts embark on a campaign of rape and pillage which will destroy Gaelic football and reduce it to what some club teams were like in the Fifties and Sixties when we had the scourge of mass emigration. The make-up then was a lot of minors waiting to go, some in their 20s who did not want to work and the rest of the team made up of 30-somethings with knobbly knees and patched up with enough bandages to keep a Baghdad hospital going for a month.
Fifty years ago we had a system of assisted passage to Australia. It basically paid people to go down south so long as you stayed and worked. A hundred years earlier the passage was not so pleasant as you headed for Botany Bay or Van Diemen's Land -- six weeks on board and hard labour to follow but, for those who made it, life was probably a lot better than what they left.
The International Rules and young players being enticed to go to Australia are separate issues entirely. But I am in favour of both. If I was 30 years younger and got the chance of travelling to Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane, I think I would have taken it. My son thinks rather differently; there is no accounting for taste. Money is obviously a temptation but most young players would love the opportunity of living the life of a full-time professional. That is why most are going now: the money on offer is quite small but experiencing the lifestyle of an Aussie Rules player is enticing.
And the trickle will never be a flood -- we haven't got such reserves of talent, and soon the numbers going out will be balanced by those coming home. They will have lived the life and found it was not to their liking or simply they were not good enough. But a wealth of experience will be gained. Many more will return because they still love their football, their home club and county. That is still very clear from Tadhg Kennelly, Colm Begley, Martin Clarke and the Ó hAilpíns. Whenever they are home, they love getting back with their clubs. For now, though, they are living the dream.
We cannot decide to cut Australia off just the same as we cannot stop students going to play in the US for the summer, or players from GAA backgrounds taking their chances in the English Premier League. Travel and experience, both good and bad ones, are part of living. The more you have, the better and I think that any player who spends his whole career between club and county without going abroad, even if only for a summer, has had much too narrow an outlook on life. Most young Irish are heading for Australia for a year anyway before they work. What better way to experience their culture than by kicking their ball and maybe getting paid for it?
Some time ago I brought up the issue of compensation for clubs here whose players sign up for the long flight. The Aussies who I spoke to were more than happy to make some contribution -- it cannot be termed payment -- but most clubs would put the likes of €10,000 to good use if a fairy godmother arrived at their door.
There is no reason either that, with a bit of research and cultivation, player movement could not become a two-way street. There are plenty of young Aussies who are very good footballers but slightly below the top level who would love to travel to Ireland as the gateway to Europe. They would be of great benefit to most clubs. So rather than crying about the plundering of our talent, we should have a look at doing something similar. A little help to get these young Aussies to this side of the world, and a job when they get here, would attract many. For every difficulty, there is also opportunity.
As for the International rules itself, I have always been a supporter. Last time out it did nothing for me but, on reflection, it may be more important than ever to try it again. However, the spirit it is to be played in is the most important aspect. The rules changes are useful, progressive and will rein in some of the crudeness -- from both sides -- which was evident last time.
Yet there is a bigger picture involved: it is one of international co-operation rather than confrontation which is of benefit to both sporting bodies, the GAA and the AFL. In this regard, the result does not matter all that much and that is why, despite protestations to the contrary, that the last Aussie coach Kevin Sheedy was unsuitable for the post as he could not see beyond the actual games themselves. All sports organisations benefit from interaction and co-operation; the GAA and the AFL have more to gain as the lack of international competition denies those same opportunities. It is rather strange then that the GAA are the ones who are dragging their feet this time with a lot of opposition in Ulster.
Back in the 1980s, it was hard enough to convince the Aussies that there was anything to learn from the Irish but they make no bones about the improvements to their own games that exposure to International Rules has brought.
These tours should be about sharing information on training techniques, diet, injury prevention and rehabilitation, not to mention the promotion and marketing of our games. We have far more in common than divides us. And county board officials should be encouraged to travel -- paid for too -- to see the way they do business. It would a very closed mind that would not learn a lot.
That needs to be built in as part of the tour. It would seem very appropriate that Seán Boylan would be in charge if this was the mindset of both sides. He made it clear even after the last debacle that he would like to be manager in Australia and the players want it too, despite the bad experience.
The International Rules is a brave and visionary concept which deserves another chance. If this does not work out and the scenes are unpleasant, then it has no future. Sometimes in life though you need to take the odd step back before you go forward. The path is now clear for that step onwards. A closed mouth gathers no flies but closed eyes and ears are worse: there is no chance of learning something new. I hope the Aussie express is up and running with a full cargo in October. Get on board, there's a lot to learn.
Tommy Conlon is on leave