Tuesday 24 October 2017

Aussie health check should kick-start a better future

Tommy Conlon

Hot on the heels of a vibrant All-Ireland championship, the Australians rolled into town and duly splashed their hosts with buckets of cold water.

By the time they'd departed, the best practitioners of Gaelic football, and indeed its many fans, were left holding a reality check. Once again, they had done the Irish game some service.

If nothing else, the international rules series is a priceless research tool for the ongoing development of both codes. Its many sceptics in Australia seemingly believe that it doesn't have much to offer their game. That's for them to decide.

But Mick Malthouse, the visiting coach, could have been speaking for both sports when he said that Australian rules needed to address the problems inherent to an insular sport.

"The connection with Gaelic football is another method of us advancing our game," he told the Irish Times. "Too many people think our game is complete -- that's it! That's the death of any sport, of anything. You've to keep expanding and looking outside."

We would hope that this ideal has also been part of Croke Park's recent motivation in persisting with the tournament. Previously they tended to emphasise the international dimension as an end in itself: top Gaelic footballers would have a chance to play for their country, and the GAA could claim some semblance of parity with the FAI and IRFU.

Those reasons still pertain, but its value as a yardstick is perhaps the best argument of all. International rules is a suitably compromised name for a compromised game, but it offers the only external comparator by which Gaelic football can be measured. The series is akin to an annual check-up, a barometer of health; it is an objective experiment from which useful information can be extracted.

Said information might make for uncomfortable reading on occasion, but it's better than going round in denial about whatever problems it exposes. Any anyway, the GAA in general is a lot more relaxed about its place in the world these days; it doesn't have to stick its head in the sand at the first sign of negative feedback.

That long-standing cultural insecurity was traditionally expressed in a tendency to exaggerate the virtues of its games and players. It was a beleaguered superiority complex that masked the inferiority complex bristling below the surface.

The latter condition has always attached itself to football in particular. It seems we're only ever one bad match away from a veritable moral panic about the state of the game. To which one can only say that this is always a tad premature. After all, it's only been a hundred years in the making, give or take, and with the Irish doing the making on their own, we're inevitably not finished yet. In fact, if we're even half-way there, we're doing well. (Another good reason, perhaps, to bring in the Germans.) Gaelic football, like the French revolution, will need another couple of hundred years before the final verdict can be applied.

But this, admittedly more long-range perspective, didn't butter any parsnips in the press box in Limerick two weeks ago. The panic had set in: Ireland were shocking, Gaelic was in an awful state, the Aussies were different class. "When was the last time you saw a decent game of football?" asked one agonised colleague. If there'd been a bottle of brandy to hand, I'd have poured him a stiff one. Eh, last September? August, July and June too?

Now in fairness, Ireland had been dire on the night. They were a good bit better in the second Test, and still only middling at most. But that doesn't in any way diminish, for example, the championship just gone, to which those players had contributed -- it was a terrific summer campaign that had sparkled with drama and entertainment.

What the Test matches showed is that it could be better. And in particular it highlighted what appears to be a pattern of decline in basic kicking skills. Or rather it confirmed what many already suspected in this regard.

Ireland managed a grand total of eight points (overs) in the first Test, 11 in the second. Some of the foot passing was inept. When these players are competing for their counties, the problem gets camouflaged because the standard is more or less the same on

both sides. Playing against an Australian team with clearly superior kicking skills, they were exposed. For this alone, the series was well worthwhile.

But it also contained the seeds of a solution too. A new rule had been introduced, more or less under the radar, restricting handpasses to four in succession. If a fifth player received the ball, he had to kick it. Players adapted to the rule and got on with it. The balance in Gaelic needs to be tilted back towards more kicking and less passing with the hand. This is a rule that seems tailor-made for that purpose.

The rule that will never be needed concerns the tackle. This is where Gaelic will always trump Australian rules. In the Irish version, good evasion skills are rewarded. It's one of the game's charms: a player who can dodge and weave is protected. In Australia, he would be buried.

Maybe they gave this some thought on the long flight home. Perhaps they also wondered, now they're so good with the round ball, why they need the oval one at all.


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