Stakes are higher than ever for tarnished rules
Published 20/10/2008 | 00:00
Hiccups are nothing new to the relationship between the GAA and the Australian Football League (AFL), the governing body of Australian Rules football.
There was a major delay from the time the Aussies arrived for the first time to play Meath in 1967 to a tortuous initiation of the first official games in Ireland in 1984, which the visitors won 2-1.
Then after Ireland won 2-1 in Australia in November 1990, there was another lapse until the series resumed in 1998. The chequered career of the series since then is well documented.
The most significant development in terms of the recent series has been the gradual domination of the Aussies on the field of play in pure football terms, if games can be described that way at all. Since 2000 there have been seven series and Australia has won five with Ireland snatching just two.
So, as we face into the latest two-game series, there are two fundamental problems regarding its future.
Firstly, it has become obvious that Australia has become the dominant team and secondly, there is the ever-present threat of blackguardism on the part of the Australian players and mentors. The last game in Croke Park in 2006 was the worst of them all and looked for a while as if it finished the series forever.
However, the attraction of these matches in both countries for the fans is the strong desire of both games' leading players to represent their countries and the not insubstantial matter of million-plus gate receipts. These factors combined to grease the path towards negotiations between the AFL and the GAA which has led to the latest renewal.
There are many conscientious objectors to the whole concept. The loudest voice of condemnation comes from Tyrone manager Mickey Harte. This is ironic because the Ireland captain this time will be Sean Cavanagh, one of the most respected players in the game and one wonders what the average Tyrone GAA follower thinks about this conflict of interests between their county's most prominent GAA figures.
The greatest threat comes from the violence which occurred in the past decade and has been massively exploited by television coverage.
One has to be careful here because every week of the year in all age groups and at all levels there is violence on the GAA's own playing fields. Just last week the Offaly minor football semi-final between Edenderry and Daingean was abandoned after shocking violence largely involving young people on and off the field. There are similar stories all over the country at this time of year.
This means that the GAA is not in a great position to lecture the AFL on violence in the compromise rules games, although that is no justification for violent behaviour either. Undoubtedly there is an element of nationalistic
fervour involved in these games which has a big bearing on how events unfold.
It is ironic that while the GAA, itself, is the most nationalistic sports organisation in Ireland, as a body or as individuals there are very few opportunities to actually flaunt that nationalism openly. Fans of other codes who follow national teams do get that chance on a regular basis. So, when fans watch a team of GAA players in action, representing a 32-county Ireland, there is no doubt that nationalistic fervour plays a big part.
And when, as has been the case in recent years, it is the foreigners who hammer the daylights -- in both football and physical terms -- out of the Ireland players, this sentiment is aggravated. And it also makes it harder for GAA people to quibble with the sort of violent behaviour which the Aussies propagate against Ireland.
Getting back to the football for the moment, it is safe to say that if there is any more thuggery involved in this year's series, the GAA will, at best, announce a very long ceasefire with no games being staged until well into the next decade. It is proposed that games be played biannually anyway which should have a calming effect in itself.
Having been honoured to be manager for two of these international series, I appreciate the honour and achievement it is for GAA players to be involved despite what Harte says. This is the one thing which might encourage me to persevere with the series if the savagery is removed from the equation.
And while great stars like Cavanagh feel honoured, it is the players from weak counties that really appreciate it, players like Leighton Glynn from Wicklow for example. That facility is something which should not be easily thrown out with the bath water by GAA officials.
The so-called controversy about young GAA players getting involved with Australian Rules is a real red herring. Over the years, far more youngsters from a GAA background have left the GAA to play soccer and rugby than were ever lost to the AFL.
It is a wonderful opportunity for these young men to sample professional sport and GAA people should not be begrudging about the matter. Anyway, the numbers of players who spend more than a couple of years in Australia is tiny in GAA membership terms. These young men are free agents and there is absolutely nothing the GAA at any level can do to prevent them going away.
The quality of the football in these two matches is the crucial element regarding its future, if it has one. Should the violence be eliminated and the Ireland players are capable of upping their game, then full houses in Croke Park will approve next time around and look forward to shouting "Ireland, Ireland" which they cannot otherwise do in a GAA context.
The stakes are very high on Friday and Friday week and top GAA officials will need to remain extremely wary about developments.