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Martin Breheny: Hybrid game is worth fighting for

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Ireland manager Paul Earley, right, and captain Michael Murphy launch the International Rules Series at Croke Park

Ireland manager Paul Earley, right, and captain Michael Murphy launch the International Rules Series at Croke Park

SPORTSFILE

Ireland manager Paul Earley, right, and captain Michael Murphy launch the International Rules Series at Croke Park

The Irish International Rules football team travels to Australia today for what could be the final instalment in a 30-year link-up.

Then again, it may not, since the hybrid game has shown remarkable resilience over the years, surviving a whole series of knocks and knock-backs that left it close to extinction on several occasions.

There's no middle ground with the International Rules game. You're either for or against it, with each viewpoint equally entrenched in its certainty.

I'm very much on the pro side, believing that the positives far outweigh the negatives. The arguments against it hinge mainly on the view that it's pointless trying to maintain a concocted game between two countries on different sides of the planet.

Violence

There's also the claim that the Australians have never quite worked out how to engage properly, either wandering beyond the bounds of decency into violence or using ineffective teams that made a mockery of an international concept.

The latter was very much the case last year when the squad they despatched to Ireland wasn't just weak but gutless as well. At the other end of the scale, some Australian teams have taken the obsession to win too far, indulging in violence and intimidation that the Australian Football League would never tolerate in its own game.

The unfortunate mix of Australian apathy and anarchy has provided a nourishing menu for opponents of the series, who are happy to exaggerate the negatives in their attempt to end the liaison.

For years, they swam with a shoal of red herrings, arguing that by engaging with the AFL, the GAA were encouraging players to try their luck in the professional game in Australia. We were told that the departure gates in Dublin Airport would be jammed with the GAA's top young talent heading Down Under in pursuit of the Australian dollar.

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Cork dual star Damien Cahalane has opted to focus on hurling alone in 2015. Picture credit: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE

Cork dual star Damien Cahalane has opted to focus on hurling alone in 2015. Picture credit: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Cork dual star Damien Cahalane has opted to focus on hurling alone in 2015. Picture credit: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE

It was pure nonsense. There are always players who want to try their luck in Australia but it will never be no more than a trickle. Besides, it will continue to run, with or without the AFL-GAA relationship.

I support the International Rules games for three reasons.

One: it gives our footballers a chance to represent their country.

Two: it tests them in a different environment.

Three: the mixed game, when played in the right spirit, is very entertaining and informative.

And since the venture is self-financing, critics here cannot argue that it's a drain on GAA finances.

In a broader context, there's a lot that can be picked up from mixing with the Australians, both in playing terms and in how they run their game.

For all the intelligence and ingenuity of coaches here, the fact remains that they are drawing exclusively from local knowledge when it comes to trends and tactics. I would love to see a top Australian Rules coach let loose on Gaelic football, imposing a different culture and mindset on the game.

The International Rules experience suggests it would be very interesting. For example, we like to think that our players are expert kickers of a football, yet over the years there have been occasions when the Australians have been far more accurate.

That's amazing, given that they were dealing with the unfamiliar round ball. If our players were asked to work with the oval ball, the series would have collapsed at the start, beaten by an Australian superiority that made it unworkable,

It's trendy nowadays - especially in the media - to focus on various American sports as if they were so far advanced of everything else that only time-warped cretins aren't fascinated by them. Throw the syrupy motivation phrases from American coaches into the mix and it deludes some sports writers into thinking their cleverness levels are overflowing with gravitas.

Personally, I have always preferred Australian Rules Football to its American counterpart. I regard it as infinitely more skilful, while also having a much broader tactical range.

And since it's loosely linked to Gaelic football, it offers the opportunity to ponder on how our game could be improved.

The standard of Australian fielding and kicking is extremely high, while their hand-speed with the pass is so far ahead of Gaelic football that it leaves you wondering why our coaches don't work more in that area.

The deterioration in the standard of kicking in Gaelic football is shamefully underlined by the modern trend where it appears that goalkeepers are the only players capable of accurately kicking long-range frees. What an indictment of where the game is going!

The Rules series won't solve that but it does offer a rare opportunity for the GAA to engage with another code of broadly similar likeness. The marriage can never be perfect but it still offers enough to make it worth fighting for, irrespective of what the naysayers claim.

Anything stirring under moonlight?

It says everything about the extremes to which some managers will take things that the GAA has had to come up with severe punishments to act as deterrents to breaking the winter training ban.

In particular, players have complained about being forced to come together during Christmas week, despite the period December 21-28 being specified in the rules as a training-free zone.

The deduction of two League points is the punishment for violation at senior level, while U-21s and minors face expulsion from the championship.

All very tough but pointless unless executed, which leaves the question: are there any whistleblowers out there who will report breaches?

Probably not.

Longford and Offaly gallop towards lion's den

It appears to be the considered view of Longford and Offaly, both of whom were relegated to Division 4 last spring, that their interest in the 2015 Leinster Football Championship is best served by playing Dublin in Croke Park.

Offaly play Longford in the first round, with the winners facing Dublin in the quarter-finals in late May. The logical approach - certainly for Offaly, which has a modern 20,000-capacity stadium in Tullamore - would be to propose that Dublin be asked to travel for the first time in nine years. But no, Offaly and Longford raised no objections to playing in what is effectively Dublin's home ground.

Good luck with that, and start planning now on how to recover from a big defeat.

Irish Independent