Sunday 23 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: What's the point in having rules?

Vincent Hogan examines a series that seems caught between two stools since backing away from its explosive physicality

The drum-roll will begin as soon as they can find the time to remember. Right now, Australia just finds itself a little preoccupied. This time next week, the Irish will be in Melbourne and, no doubt, all the marketing and faux nationalism will kick back into overdrive. But this is 'Trade Week' in the AFL and, of course, tomorrow there's that gentle, social engagement with the All Blacks.

So, if backs aren't quite turned against the looming International Rules Series, take it that Anthony Tohill and his men aren't top of anyone's agenda either.

The only Irish making headlines in Australia this week were Tommy Walsh, Marty Clarke and Setanta O hAilpin. All have been tied up in what, from the outside at least, looks like some kind of complicated poker game between AFL clubs as they finalise playing personnel for 2012.

Beyond that, there's been some down-the-page interest in coach Rodney Eade's selection of a predominantly young squad to face Ireland in the upcoming Tests. But, more than a quarter of a century into its existence, the Series still has that 'wet paint' smell.

So the oddity of Ireland selecting a captain who (a) might not even be available to travel and (b) will not speak to media if he does, didn't generate too many ripples in Australia.

Actually, it is hard to escape the suspicion that the Series has always meant more to us than them. That, somehow, they have come to see us as distant relatives, inclined, now and then, to grow a little fat on conceit.

You see, routinely we have railed against the sporadic outbreaks of violence that pockmark its history. Yet we seem uneasy with the peaceable Tests too.

It's as if we can't quite decide what it is we want from the hybrid game.

The notoriety of the '05 and '06 Tests led to the 'experiment' being suspended in '07. Then, when Ireland visited in '08, a meal for the two squads was organised on the Wednesday before the first Test in Perth. The hope was that a little social interaction might dilute the sense of difference.

That Series passed off without incident but, historically, quiet years in International Rules tend to be like subway platforms before the train arrives. Soon, you expect to hear a rumble down the tracks.

Matty Forde remembers going to last year's second Test at Croke Park with a group of friends and being able to read their anticipation of trouble. "I wouldn't say they were expecting all-out war," he explains, "but because it had been a bit quiet the year before, they were expecting something stormier."

His friends went home disappointed. Forde, of course, had been innocently caught up in the infamy of '05. After Chris Johnson's disgraceful 'clothes-line' tackle on Philip Jordan, the Australian co-captain then floored the Wexford man with a punch.

Caught off guard, Forde fell awkwardly, sustaining damage to his back that would ultimately shorten his inter-county career. He was one of many who left Australia with "a sour taste" in his mouth that autumn.

"I remember going back into the dressing-room after that game and it was like an emergency ward," he says of that second Test in Melbourne. "There was a lot of fellas bleeding, a lot of fellas very sore.

"That incident where Philly was hit by Johnson, I just ran in to see was he okay. And, whatever way I was hit, I landed on the flat of my back. I knew straight away there was something wrong.

"There was already a bit of wear and tear involved, but my back went badly into spasm. We were in Sydney for a week after and for that whole week, and particularly on the flight home, I was in agony. Then, a week later, I was supposed to play an inter-provincial final and wasn't able.

"From that point of view, I suppose the experience wasn't particularly nice. But, at least, we got the chance to play for Ireland."

meltdown

One year later, the Series went into temporary meltdown with a lawless second Test that had Graham Geraghty knocked unconscious by a 'swing tackle' from Danyle Pearce. Geraghty had been cited for an incident in the first Test and later recalled being told by an Australian player: "Hope you're ready, we're coming to get you."

This was the year, too, that the controversial Australian Brendan Fevola was sent home for assaulting a barman in Galway. The sense of a game now utterly subsumed by thuggery was unavoidable and only the most delicate of negotiation managed to stave off abandonment.

What we have since is a game, essentially, on probation. The last two Series were largely tip-toe affairs and many of the AFL's better players now make themselves unavailable for duty.

Brian McEniff, who managed the Irish to a Series win Down Under in '01, fears the authorities have maybe "over-corrected" here.

"I'm not into physical violence, I never coached it," stresses the man who led Donegal to the 1992 All-Ireland crown. "But maybe a little too much of the physicality has been taken out of the game now.

"I think it really got out of control in '06. The Irish players were bullied, for want of a better word. There's no place even in the Australian game for what was taking place. I mean we're amateur footballers and the Aussies were clearly trying to intimidate us.

"But what's happened since has maybe taken a wee bit of the spark or edge off it. I'd like to see a bit more physical contact. That said, in latter times it would appear to me that the Australians don't have the same commitment to it that we do. It's coming at a time of year when, because they're professionals, they're probably wanting just to get the season finished.

"Representing Australia doesn't mean as much to them as representing Ireland means to our players."

Tohill has, as yet, left five positions vacant on his squad for the Tests in Melbourne on October 28 and Queensland on November 4. Yet he seems to have followed McEniff's patent from '01 of focusing largely on players not involved towards the business end of the championship.

In 2000, McEniff recalls his preparation as "a cod" because of replays being required for both the final and one of the semi-finals in the race for Sam Maguire. With the bulk of his squad being drawn from Kerry, Galway and Armagh, he had little opportunity to formulate any tangible gameplan. Ireland lost both Tests that year without mounting a compelling (or, for that matter, remotely contrary) challenge. And Tohill was their captain.

"Anthony would have been well aware of the difficulties we had, so I'd say he's gone the same way I did in '01," says McEniff. "That year I decided not to put all my eggs into the latter stages of the All-Ireland. So I wasn't depending on people being available from the semi-finals on.

"I just said: 'No, I'll go and pick my own team'. And that's how the likes of Graham Canty, Anthony Rainbow, Dermot Earley Junior, Eamonn O'Hara and the late Cormac McAnallen got involved."

But what exactly is the Series without violence?

It seems significant that during last summer's AFL wage dispute, one negotiating tool considered by the players was a boycotting of the hybrid game. They made it abundantly clear that no action which might impact on their Premiership season would be considered.

To many of them, these games are exhibitions that, as professionals against amateurs, offer them little more than the potential for embarrassment. To the Irish, there is a deeper emotional investment.

McEniff's description of the personal stress endured during that '01 trip Down Under offers a remarkable insight into the sense of national responsibility that can take hold.

"As a manager, you can't enjoy the trip," he stresses now. "It's too serious. I felt a huge amount of pressure the second year. I felt I'd let myself down and let my country down (in 2000).

"When we stood up that day in the Melbourne Cricket Ground (first Test '01), 60-odd thousand there and them playing the national anthem, the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I had goosebumps. Half the people in the ground were probably Irish, second and third generation, there to support us.

"I tried to cover every angle. When the ball was thrown in, Sean McCague -- who was out there as GAA president -- was out of the soft seats and working as a defensive coach to my right. Mattie Kerrigan -- who was out as a tourist -- was down my left side watching the forwards.

"Ronan Carolan came out as a physio, but I had him down on the sideline with TJ Kilgallon. Paddy Clarke was in charge of the inter-change board. We were running it as professionally as we could."

hiatus

Ireland's defeat in 2000 had been their first since 1987 (there was an eight-year hiatus between 1990 and '98), but Australia have now won five of the last seven Series.

While some veterans of the almost comically unruly Tests of the '80s developed enduring friendships, there remains a sense that the Australian and Irish players today share little common ground.

Forde recalls a banquet held in Croke Park after the second Test in '04. Both teams sat through the formalities, essentially on opposite sides of the hall. "There was literally no verbal communication," he remembers. "None whatsoever. As soon as the speeches were out of the way, we just headed our separate ways.

"A year later, I remember us both being in the one room at the Subiaco Oval before the first Test in Perth. But again, the verbal communication would have been next to nothing -- if at all."

That said, he will watch this year's games with more than a passing interest. Like McEniff (who expects Ireland to win the Series), Forde suggests that the physical side of International Rules needs to be protected every bit as much as the imperative for self-discipline.

Over-dilute the product and you are left with the sporting equivalent of barley water.

"You still need a small bit of cut or needle," says Forde. "You don't want to go back to '05, where it was just plain dirty and turned into a bit of a free-for-all. But you don't want to over-compensate either.

"The one thing that strikes me is that, as professionals, they don't like getting beaten by amateurs -- especially not in their own backyard. When that happens, they tend to want to set down a couple of markers.

"Put it this way, if they were being heavily beaten this year, things could take a turn again..."

Irish Independent

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