Tuesday 11 December 2018

Colm O'Rourke: International rules gets another spin on merry-go-round

Manager Colm O'Rourke and Graham Geraghty celebrate victory in 1999
Manager Colm O'Rourke and Graham Geraghty celebrate victory in 1999
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

I managed to annihilate over 25,000 people in Cavan last week. That is, I listed the county's population as just over 50,000, instead of 76,000. Anyway, the natives don't appear to have been too upset by it.

A lot of the increase in the south of the county is based on the spread of Dublin to places like Virginia and Ballyjamesduff, they are part of the commuter belt and there is a far better chance of young players getting a shot at county football in Cavan and other counties by people moving out of the city.

Most of the reaction to dividing Dublin for the good of the GAA over the next 50 years seems based on the damage to Dublin while still ignoring the lack of opportunity for young players at present. Perhaps there will be more debate when the population of Dublin reaches one and a half million, something which is not long away, or will people still believe that the boundaries from the past should remain forever more?

Looking at the number of games played in Croke Park last week in the Cumann na mBunscol finals - they do a wonderful job everywhere - it made me think that those kids should treasure their experience because very few will get a chance to play in Croke Park again. That is a pity, but the reality of not wanting to embrace participation and opportunity will be the exact opposite and there is a price to be paid for that too.

On another front, there is opportunity. The international rules series is on again. Many have not even noticed and few, in truth, seem bothered whether it stays or goes. With two games coming up in Adelaide and Perth (November 12 and 18) it more or less ruled out many of the leading Dublin players.

After winning the All-Ireland they had to turn their attention to club duty at a time when the training for Australia was in full swing. The Dublin final is on Monday between St Vincent's and Ballymun Kickhams so players like Philly McMahon, Dean Rock, James McCarthy and Diarmuid Connolly are ruled out. These are the very players who should be the backbone of the team.

I don't know whether they wanted to be involved but few would turn down a trip to Australia and it is a pity that being successful with club and county means that the best players cannot benefit from this. In many ways those with the best chance of getting on the panel were better off if they were not involved with a successful county and their club were out of the championship early, notwithstanding that three Mayo players have been chosen.

This problem is going to get worse with a truncated season for clubs particularly. It is going to be like getting a ton of salmon into one of those small John West tins, there is going to be a very messy explosion when clubs get their first experience of this new dawn.

No matter what people think, it is a signal honour to be chosen for your country. I saw it first-hand when I managed Ireland in the series at home in 1999 and in Australia the following year. Those players were committed, disciplined and proud of their country. And it was the only opportunity that they could ever get to represent Ireland. They made it show on the pitch too, winning at home and away in front of the biggest crowds to attend in Australia. Over 70,000 showed up in the MCG in Melbourne and the Adelaide Oval was a sell-out.

It probably meant even more to those from the six counties to represent Ireland. At a press conference before the second Test, the Australian trio of Nathan Buckley, Shane Crawford and Dermott Brereton were present along with John McDermott, the Irish captain, his vice captain Peter Canavan, and myself. If you did not know anything about where everyone was from you would be hard pressed to decide which group were from Ireland as all the names originated here.

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea has the honour of captaining his country in the international rules series against Australia. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea has the honour of captaining his country in the international rules series against Australia. Photo: Sportsfile

Anyway, at the time Australia were having a vote on whether to become a Republic. The Australian players wore badges openly supporting a Republic. Somebody asked Peter Canavan what he thought of a Republic and his reply was on the lines of, "what is that?" He was the only one without any say in a Republic so the honour of representing Ireland is strong in the North and especially now with the cup named after Cormac McAnallen. Canavan was brilliant in that series.

Yet for all of that, the series is not what it was. There was a time when the chance of an all-in melee drew in the crowds, even if the best game that I ever saw was in Adelaide in 2000 when the very best players in Ireland and Australia played out a draw. There were no fights either. At its best, the game is a mighty spectacle with the rules giving enough to both sides as the results over the last 20 years have demonstrated.

Yet this series is immediately downgraded by not having a game in Melbourne, which is the home of Aussie rules. It is the same as the Australians coming to Ireland and not playing in Croke Park. Adelaide is a sleepy sort of place. There will be little for the players to do there and there is unlikely to be much interest in the game. Perth will be a different matter but that will be because it is full of Irish which will lead to a raucous atmosphere at the game.

Of course many traditional Gaels feel that this association with Australia has polluted our game and allowed the Aussies get their grubby hands on our best players. If we believe in freedom for the young then the attraction of being a professional is the price we pay, although there should be some compensation mechanism to clubs and counties when players move to a professional sport. But trying to stop it is a non-starter. You might as well try and stop someone going to England to play soccer or spend time travelling in the US. It is part of what this generation of young people do now and the GAA do not own them. Of the numbers who go to Australia, few make it. The rest get a brilliant experience and bring new knowledge back to our game.

So the international rules series gets another spin on the merry-go-round. Perhaps there should be a year break after a two-year series, but if it is to survive it needs a long-term plan. At the moment it is struggling on, a bit like the Railway Cup in the 1970s. Players really enjoy the game and our game has benefited from rule changes which directly or indirectly came from the hybrid game.

The Aussies have learned a bit from us too, even if they might not admit learning from the amateurs. Yet survival is not what this is about, there needs to be a plan for the future or, like the Railway Cup, it will run out of track. And soon.

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