Overcoming every obstacle
The international rules series continues to endure despite its many impediments, writes Damian Lawlor
With uncertainty surrounding a host of players in Anthony Tohill's international rules squad for the forthcoming trip to Australia, surely his announcement last Tuesday came a week too early.
Tohill only named 18 players with another five to be added in the next few days but several players could be facing a club v country predicament.
The availability of captain Stephen Cluxton, for instance, is still up in the air. His Parnells team take on St Sylvester's in a Dublin championship clash today. What will Cluxton do if his club team advance to the last eight?
For this reason, and others, Tohill's decision to firstly name his squad last week and secondly to appoint the Dublin 'keeper as captain raised a few eyebrows.
It wasn't because of Cluxton's application to the cause -- since the All-Ireland final he has shown his immense dedication to this series, attending one meeting just days after the Dubs beat Kerry, frequently being the first player togged out at training and breaking away from a wedding to attend one session.
But the question has to be asked: how fair is it on Cluxton? Apart from a possible club v country conflict, Cluxton's desire to maintain his privacy and stay out of the public eye as much as possible is well known. And he is perfectly entitled to do this, but appointing him as captain thrusts him into the spotlight, somewhere he is clearly very uncomfortable being.
Maybe it would have been a better move by Tohill and his management team to consider someone like Tadhg Kennelly for the role, not least because he is totally free of club distractions at the moment.
In Australia, this series will rely heavily on media exposure and Kennelly would have been comfortable in this role. As it is, the Australians are likely to be more than a little baffled at Ireland's captain staying silent.
Still, those anomalies didn't seem to bother the Irish manager one jot. "Stephen is a fantastic leader in the dressing room with the players and on the pitch in terms of the direction he gives the players," said Tohill in defence of his decision.
"He was one of a few stand-out candidates that we had for the captaincy. You look at the year that he has had for Dublin. Who better to lead Ireland than Stephen? As for the club thing, I would view that as a small risk at the minute. It's a hypothetical situation and I don't necessarily like dealing with hypothetical situations. If there is an issue we will address it at that time. But we would hope and we would expect him to be available to us."
Tohill also argued that Cluxton, as an amateur, was not obliged to deal with the media and said that other players would share those duties.
The club versus country issue is not Tohill's fault. It will always be a thorn in the side of Irish managers. This time around, for instance, Ireland must cope without the talents of the Brogan brothers who are focusing solely on their club, while victory for Mid Kerry in yesterday's county semi-final means that Darran O'Sullivan may decide to pull out of the squad.
Ireland's vice-captain Ciarán McKeever acknowledges the hassle this causes each time a series beckons and feels there should be a short break from club activity to facilitate the competition.
"These games don't come around often. It's sad to miss it," he admitted. "I know the club means everything but maybe there should be someone setting an agenda for down the line -- that club matches can be postponed for two or three weeks -- and let the boys go and represent the country."
The management, however, are not letting it weigh them down.
"Look, it's something we've been accustomed to," says selector Kevin O'Brien, who has a long association with the series, stretching back to when he was a player himself.
"All I can say is that most players want to play. The vast majority we contacted were keen to represent Ireland and for those who didn't sign up, club activity was the primary reason each time. But we've been working on this series right from May; Mike McGurn has been assessing our core players on a weekly basis, Kieran McGeeney has come in to give us more intensity in the tackle and the players have been put through the rigours in training. We had a good weekend session in Carton House a few weeks back in the worst of weather and it brought everyone closer together. We all know that club games are a problem for this series but we've got on with it. It's not an excuse. It's something that comes with the territory and we've learned to adjust."
Such impediments have always threatened the future of this competition but it continues to survive.
Perhaps the greatest threat to its existence were the violent scenes of the 2008 tests. Only intense negotiations between the GAA and the AFL saved the day. Questions have also been asked about the cost of the series, particularly at a time when the Waterford County Board has admitted it may not be able to afford post-training meals for its teams.
But the GAA can point to the fact that last year's rules series generated a €300,000 profit for the GAA. Next week's trip Down Under will have sponsorship from TG4 and Etihad Airways towards the cost.
The crowds have continued to support this game. Since 1998, average attendances for all tests played stand at 47,000. Kevin O'Brien remembers the atmosphere at Croke Park last year when Ireland drew level with their opponents at a crucial juncture.
"I was down on the line," he recalls. "And the atmosphere would send a shiver down your spine. I never experienced anything like it as a player myself, 60,000 people roaring the team on. It was incredible. It just shows there is something there. Any time the competition is written off, it bounces back. People always turn up. We'd be hopeful that the venues in Melbourne and the Gold Coast will be sell-outs and I would say the Coast venue will prove tricky for ticket hunters as it holds less than 30,000.
"But it's all part of it. We watched the rugby World Cup and to be honest this Irish international rules team feels a similar responsibility to inspire our exiles at on other side of the world.
"We want to give them something to feel good about again and integrate with them over there. It's another reason why the competition is so important." GAA operations manager Fergal McGill will act as tour co-coordinator, while Meath man Liam Keane, a man with widespread experience of the Association's Disputes Resolutions Authority (DRA), will serve as tour manager, liaising between the GAA and Tohill.
Most of the official party travel on October 22 with the first test taking place the following Friday in Melbourne and the second the Friday after that at the Gold Coast venue.
Despite all the variances and glitches it encounters between logistics, club dilemmas, violence and apathy, it has survived. It deserves respect for that alone.
Sunday Indo Sport