International Rules: 'If a player runs into a dust-up, he must be ready to fight' says former Ireland stalwart
Bryan Cullen, Dubs' veteran of three series, is excited by Irish attacking potential but he tells Vincent Hogan the Aussies won't hold back
It was all just kicking off in Melbourne's Docklands when Bryan Cullen felt a paternal hand reach across his shoulder.
"Don't bother with that mate!" counselled the big, square-shouldered Aussie standing next to him. The second International Rules Test of '05 was degenerating into an ugly wart of a spectacle and Cullen, a 21-year-old Dub, had been weighing up his options. He would be thankful for his opponent's counsel.
Cullen never did find out the peacekeeper's name, but that was the day International Rules haemorrhaged so badly, the blood spilled onto newspaper front pages and came to completely dominate calls into RTé's 'Liveline'.
Its nadir was, of course, the moment Australian co-captain - Chris Johnson - floored Tyrone's Philip Jordan with a clothes-line assault that wouldn't have looked out of place in Thursday Night Smackdown. He followed it by dropping Wexford's Mattie Forde with a punch and the brawl that followed would be one of a small multiple that pockmarked a second consecutive heavy Test defeat for Ireland.
One year later, it seemed as if the series might have breathed its last when Graham Geraghty was systematically targeted and knocked unconscious in Croke Park. Afterwards, Ireland manager Sean Boylan decried the "thuggery" on show, proposing that the very concept ought to be scrapped there and then.
For Cullen, who missed that '06 series with a hip injury, the memories of '05 are - then - largely educational.
"The one thing I learned very quickly about playing against the Australians," he remembers, "was that, if you were going to run into a dust-up or a shemozzle, you'd better be prepared to defend yourself. It's not like Gaelic games where people run in and there's a lot of pushing and shoving before people get separated.
"I found, particularly in that series, if you made a direct line towards a player, he wouldn't wait for you to act. As the saying goes, he'd get his retaliation in first. If you wanted to get involved, you really had to be prepared to mix it.
"I remember the Chris Johnson incident was all over the papers. It was such a particularly bad incident, it's probably all anyone remembers of the series. There were loads of brawls that day, but I kept out of it. I mean I was 21 and looking at some of these seasoned professional athletes laying down the law. I knew better than to take them on!"
Cullen, now a strength and conditioning coach with Leinster's rugby academy, is a veteran of three series as well as an U-17 tour undertaken to Australia in 2001.
He was Irish captain for the latter adventure, a remarkable experience exposing Declan Rowley's squad to three Tests played as curtain-raisers to AFL contests. Among those in that U-17 squad were Galway's Michael Meehan, Meath's Joe Sheridan and Cullen's Dublin colleague Declan O'Mahony.
Ireland were well beaten in all three games, suffering from having to play on significantly bigger pitches than anything they were accustomed to.
"It was a fantastic experience," he remembers. "We played two Tests at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and a third in Perth. But, because they were warm-ups to AFL games, they couldn't modify the pitch length. All they did was draw lines down the side of an oval. I think a GAA pitch is normally 140 metres long, we were playing on 165/170-metre pitches and they took a bit more out of us than we were anticipating."
Australian captain for that U-17 tour was Luke Hodge, a four-time Premiership-winning Hawthorn veteran, who will lead the Aussies in tonight's Test at Croke Park. Cullen still has Hodge's jersey from '01.
That tour set the Skerries man thinking how much he'd love "a crack" at Aussie Rules, but the invitation to a trial never did materialise. That said, he did absorb a real interest in AFL as well as a tactical understanding of the hybrid game that, undoubtedly, helped when Pete McGrath included him in the senior squad of '04. That series carried a particularly personal resonance for many of the Irish players as the winners' trophy was named in memory of the Tyrone footballer, Cormac McAnallen, who had died suddenly that March.
Cullen recalls a real sense of mission among the senior Irish players especially that year to win the cup in honour of a 24-year-old who had represented Ireland in '01, '02 and '03. And that desire was answered with comfortable victories in both Tests. On honest reflection, the '05 series was notable for more than Aussies' appetite for conflict. They won it by an aggregate 57 points, Kevin Sheedy's squad proving themselves surprisingly adept at more legitimate practices too. Australia actually scored a remarkable 100 points in the first Test at Perth's Subiaco Oval and Cullen recalls: "Because all people remember is the violence, it tends to be forgotten that we were badly beaten football-wise that year as well. I remember being surprised at the improvement in their kicking skills from the year before. A drastic improvement. I think Brian Stynes was doing a bit with them, teaching them the orthodox kick around the corner as opposed to the punt kick which, even for a GAA player with a GAA ball, is very, very difficult to do on the run."
Cullen was actually used as an emergency goalkeeper in that series as the only conventional netminder selected, Down's Mickey McVeigh, was experiencing trouble with his kick-outs. "I would have been playing centre-back with Dublin at the time, kicking a lot of frees from around the half-back line and having a reasonably high percentage of retaining possession," remembers Cullen. "Mickey Whelan was involved with that International Rules team and he suggested putting me in goal.
"I'd never played there in my life, but you're not an orthodox goalkeeper in International Rules. You're more like a sweeper. It was an experience (laughing). I got caught a couple of times, trying to be clever bringing the ball out."
The series was suspended for '07 and Cullen remembers a far more civilised spectacle when the relationship resumed in '08. "It was nice to go out and play football without the fear that the head was going to be taken off you at the same time," he reflects.
Since then, the dynamic has been largely civilised, albeit the Australian decision to pick an entirely indigenous squad two years ago backfired badly with two heavy defeats. Stiffer domestic sanctions for Australian players who misbehave have also helped to encourage better behaviour. Perhaps the worry for Ireland has been a growing sense (particularly in Perth last year) that the Australian kick-passing was, inexplicably, superior to ours. Cullen is not surprised.
"There's a lot of blanket defences in Gaelic football now," he says. "And there's not a huge benefit to kicking a ball into a blanket defence. As a result, the amount of kick-passing in our game is absolutely dwindling. It's basically turned into basketball on a GAA pitch.
"Teams are handpassing from one end of a field to the other, patiently trying to break defences down and pick off a shot. At times, the only actual kick you might see in a move is the actual shot. That's even dribbled down into the club game."
Having previously expressed reservations about the "spectacle" of International Rules, Cullen suggests that the appeal of seeing the likes of Bernard Brogan, Sean Cavanagh and Conor McManus in the same forward-line tonight should, in itself, be a major selling point. He also believes it will be a help if tonight's game has a palpable edge. "Look, it's never going to be the epicentre of a GAA season," he says flatly. "It's never going to eclipse an All-Ireland final or, for that matter, a Grand Final in the AFL. But I know for certain that guys will be chomping at the bit to win this Test tonight."
And the supporters? Is there not just the faintest suspicion of voyeurism, of hoping for violence in the way some motor-racing fans hope for a crash?
"That's certainly been the case at times I would think," he agrees frankly. "Actually I think when some of the physicality was taken out of it, people didn't like it as much. But we can have a hard edge without it being physically dangerous for players. Personally, I'd like to see two teams having a cut off each other absolutely, without it descending into brawls and chaos.
"People want that edge. It's the same in our own games. There's always that little bit of edge in the bigger contests. Once it doesn't boil over and once players aren't getting seriously injured, I don't see anything wrong with that." Bryan Cullen was speaking as an EirGrid ambassador. EirGrid is title sponsor of the EirGrid International Rules Test match which sees Ireland take on Australia under lights at 7.0 this evening in Croke Park