Eugene McGee: Australian apathy sends Rules series towards extinction
Decision to send indigenous squad of limited ability was a major breach of faith and insulting to the GAA
So many people said to me over the week that the International Rules series is a 'dead duck' that, rather than hastily rush into a judgment, I checked with dictionary.com to find out what exactly was the modern interpretation of the phrase.
"A person or thing that is beyond help, redemption or hope" was the answer and that's short and succinct enough for anybody to understand.
After the latest Ireland-Australia debacle at Croke Park on Saturday night, 'dead duck' really does seem to fit the bill. The only problem before the corpse of the duck is interred, is that one of the participating teams doesn't want the series to die; believes in its redemption and retains hope for its continuation.
The players involved regard selection for Ireland as very high on their football CVs and the fact that Ireland gave fine exhibitions of the compromise game on both occasions is thanks to the players and the high level of organisation that Ireland manager Paul Earley and his helpers brought to the table.
By contrast, the slipshod and downright negligent approach of the Australians guaranteed a fiasco – and that's exactly what we got.
When this experiment started many years ago, the Australians probably had a few motives for originating it. At the start, it was largely a personal crusade led by Australian promoter Harry Beitzel, who forged a friendship with the late Peter McDermott of Meath, and an October Saturday in 1967, saw some of the biggest stars in the AFL take on All-Ireland champions Meath and, to the astonishment of a curious attendance, beat them.
More games took place over several years on a haphazard basis until formal arrangements started in the 1980s and the success (if you could call it that) in those early years was based on physical combat with the ball being of secondary importance.
The manliness of several Ireland players – then regarded as the hardest of hard men in football – was severely dented by a whole series of harder, tougher, bigger and less sporting players from Australia.
Naturally, Ireland were duty- bound to respond and so we had the legendary battles home and away; most notably in 1986 when Kevin Heffernan locked horns as Irish manager with Australian John Todd. The latter, rather injudiciously, described the Irish players as "a crowd of wimps" after the first Test and that really set the fires alight for years afterwards.
One of the reasons the Australian authorities were interested in the whole series was their discovery that Gaelic football was a fruitful recruiting ground for Irish players for the professional Aussie Rules.
The almost immediate success of the late Jim Stynes, who had just won an All-Ireland minor medal with Dublin, was the catalyst and dozens of Irish players have traversed that route subsequently with varying degrees of success.
Then AFL scouts began to systematically recruit and groom Gaelic players and therefore the International series was not seen as important to the Australian authorities.
For Aussie players, the trips to Ireland began to lose their glamour, too, as players of all sports began to travel internationally, including GAA players, and anyway, the leading Aussie Rules players began to feel they needed their annual break at this time of the year before starting their pre-season training in January.
Despite all that, the decision of the Australian authorities – off their own bat and without consultation with the GAA – not to send their best players, but rather an indigenous squad of much less ability overall in their own sport, was a major breach a faith and insulting to the GAA.
The results of that decision was there for all to see in the embarrassing fiascos of the two Aussie performances.
Based on the previous cycle, Ireland are due to complete this rota with a trip to Australia next autumn. A place in the squad will be a much sought after by GAA players. Presumably, this series will go ahead and surely Australia will not repeat this year's selection disaster. After that who knows?
But it's ironic that only a few years ago about 150,000 spectators attended the two games at Croke Park – something which was the envy of every other sporting body in Ireland.
Having myself being manager of six of these games in Ireland and Australia, the one thing that makes me consider a continuation in some form of this series is its significance for the many inter-county players from the so-called weaker counties who play for Ireland.
It's a colossal honour for them to play on the same field and on equal terms with the biggest stars of Gaelic football and Aussie Rules. Along with the Railway Cup – once the focal point for such players to achieve national recognition seemingly thrown in the dust bin – this series was their only hope of showing their ability on a bigger stage.
Players from Clare, Wicklow, Longford, Westmeath, Louth, Wexford, Carlow, Sligo, Cavan, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Limerick and Tipperary were very proud to have played for Ireland.
However, without genuine interest from the AFL, it's impossible to continue the series. It seems such a pity nowadays when we have so many thousands of Irish emigrants now living in Australia that the link cannot be maintained.
But we are dealing here with a professional sports organisation and an amateur one and therein lies the basic problem.