Wednesday 21 February 2018

Martin Breheny: Time for GAA and AFL to put their heads together

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

PERHAPS it's the rain and the dark clouds dipping so low over Melbourne that they might well be enjoying a gap year from Mayo, Monaghan or Meath, but links with back home are easy to find in this city.

These reminders are everywhere and include the many Irish people who are in Australia as a short-term life experience, those who hope to return home and others who travelled south and never went back. And then there are the GAA players, the adventurers who were afforded the opportunity to play a professional game in a different world.

Many have come and gone over the years, while some are still trying their cases but, in the main, the exodus from Ireland hasn't been anything like as substantial as the purveyors of gloom predicted a few years ago.

Scaremongers warned that the International Rules series would increase the southerly migration and that once the Australians recognised the vast resources ready to be mined from Gaelic football, most of our top young talent would be lost forever.

The same was predicted in the 1980s when Jim Stynes and Sean Wight left for Australia, yet three decades later the outflow remains quite small. There's a two-fold reason for that: one, not every young talent wants to try the Australian experiment and two, of those who do, relatively few make it.

Indeed, Ireland's contribution to the AFL was put rather graphically by columnist Jake Neal in 'The Sunday Age'. Writing on "why the Irish experiment doesn't add up", he noted that Stynes, Wight and Tadhg Kennelly were -- thus far at least -- the only Gaelic footballers to make it big in Australia.

"To this point, they are the only clear-cut Irish successes in a game that has been unforgiving to Gaelic converts. They're like the minority of actors who make it in Hollywood while the rest wait tables," wrote Neal.

At one stage there was a belief in Australia that Ireland would be a bountiful source of talent for the AFL but now, it appears, they are looking more towards the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and even America.

That's no bad thing for the GAA, but it raises the question of whether Gaelic football is capable of expanding players' range of talents to the full extent. We have convinced ourselves that skill levels, coaching and tactical innovations have never been higher in Gaelic football, yet relatively few of its players make it in Australian Rules.

Australian coach Rodney Eade suggested that Gaelic football hasn't advanced very much in 100 years, whereas Australian Rules has evolved considerably.

"I think we've got a lot more willingness to try new things. They (Gaelic football) are very much about sticking to the tried and true, the way it's been played for a long time," he said.

In fairness, he explained yesterday that he didn't mean it in a disparaging way but rather as a comparison with Australian Rules, which has undergone far more rule changes than Gaelic football over the years.

It would be easy to dismiss Eade's remarks but that's to ignore the possibility that maybe there's truth in what he says.

Is Gaelic football anywhere close to optimum potential? Global sports like soccer and rugby can call on creative minds from all over the world, whereas Gaelic football -- and hurling -- relies on the tactical resources of one small country on the western rim of Europe.

They have done mighty well in the circumstances but that's not to say that there aren't better ways of playing our national sports.

Perhaps, then, the next phase of GAA-AFL relations should involve an exchange scheme for coaches, whereby a few from Australia spend a year in Ireland and vice versa.

It would be mighty interesting to find out how an AFL coach would approach Gaelic football and if he could succeed in bringing new thinking to the game.

It's a two-way process since there's every reason to believe that top Gaelic football coaches would bring something different to the Australian Rules game. A cross-fertilisation of ideas would benefit both sports which is why the International Rules series -- for all its perceived shortcomings -- has value.

After all, one of the main advantages of the GAA-AFL link-up is that it provides two organisations, that are largely isolated in world sporting terms, with an opportunity to share ideas. Where better to do that than in the actual specifics of their games?

Irish Independent

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