Sport Gaelic Football

Thursday 18 January 2018

Martin Breheny: International rules

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

AT the age of 26, it's time for the International Rules series to prove that it's a mature adult.

Either that, or admit that because of its troubled background it will always have personality defects, in which case the best policy is to rescue it from public attention.

In other words, scrap it. If it's to have a genuine future there's got to be an end to the cycle of rows and mayhem followed by reconciliation and harmony.

Neither works. The chaos of the early days and the shocking violence of 2005/06 brought disgrace on both the GAA and the AFL.

It was accompanied by widespread hypocrisy too for while there was unanimous public condemnation, many people secretly enjoyed the bust-ups. The possibility of what the Australians term 'open slather' increased crowds both here and Down Under, but it also undermined the entire concept.

The violence of 2005/06 almost ended the series but it survived after intense negotiations between the GAA and AFL. Its immediate future hinged on the 2008 series, which was carefully choreographed.

A midweek dinner where the Irish and Australian teams sat together was one of the major PR undertakings, while repeated promises from rival coaches Sean Boylan and Mick Malthouse that both teams would be on their very best behaviour provided a soothing background for a series which passed off without incident.

But then, both teams knew that the future of the International Rules game was at stake and that even one violent incident could spell the end of the line.

The players kept their side of the bargain and both Tests were played in a good spirit. And guess what? Something was missing.

There's a huge difference between the gratuitous violence which destroyed the 2005/06 series and a sanitised game, governed by fear that its future depends on impeccable manners.

That was an understandable approach two years ago as both sides made a point of demonstrating how disciplined they were. Trouble was, it removed the edge that makes the clash of two games and two cultures so potentially exciting.

That's why this year's games are so important. Having started life as an irritable baby in 1984 and grown into a troublesome teenager before celebrating its 21st birthday with a house-wrecking party in 2005, the series needs to define what type of adult it wants to be.

Certainly, it must leave the hell-raising days in the past, but it can't become boring either. Ultimately, the future of the series relies on the public -- both in Ireland and Australia -- believing that the mixed game is sufficiently entertaining to coax them out to watch it. That can only be achieved if the sparks which inevitably apply in an international physical contact game are allowed to fly.

That's altogether different from permitting them to rage into uncontrollable fires as happened in the early days and again in 2005/06.

However, players must be allowed to perform in the image and likeness of their own game -- within a set of rules which accommodates Gaelic football and Australian Rules.

It's a difficult mix but genuine progress was made in the 2002-04 period. Unfortunately, all the good work was undone in 2005 and '06 and while harmony was restored in '08, there was a feeling that the need to avoid trouble at all costs detracted from the overall package.

Now, the onus in on both squads to raise the competitive temperature while ensuring it doesn't come near boiling point. Equally importantly, it's vital that tonight's game creates an appetite for the second Test in Croke Park next Saturday.

There are many in the GAA who would love to see the International Rules series dumped. They assert that it's a totally contrived concept and brings little to either game.

That's not necessarily the case but advocates of the link-up would have to admit that the violence of 2005/06 did serious damage.

Every attempt is now being made to redress that but it remains to be seen if it can actually be achieved.

Tonight's clash will go some way towards indicating if the game is settling down and becoming a viable proposition or continuing to live a chaotic existence.

It's all about striking a balance between mixing the best qualities from both codes and building them into a coherent structure.

It's a difficult task, given the infrequency of the games, but both the GAA and AFL would have to admit that even after 26 years of engagement, the jury is split on whether the series has a long-term future.

The next week is likely to clarify some crucial points in that regard.

It needs to, because the series can't continue with its haphazard boom-bust graph.

Irish Independent

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