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Opinion: International Rules worth fighting for

Monday, November 24, 2014

By Brian Murphy, Perth

There are still a number of issues to sort out. First on the agenda is next year's series, which technically shouldn't take place because of a two-in-three-years agreement between the two organisations reached back in 2008. However, that can be conveniently and easily forgotten

One of the analogies often reached for when discussing the future of the International Rules is that of a patient on life support. There are plenty out there willing the GAA and the AFL to pull the plug and to let the concept slip away quietly.

That would be to do away with a rich shared history between two codes and countries dating back to 1967, when Harry Beitzel and his ‘Galahs’ arrived on our shores for a series of games which turned out to be the precursor to the modern International Rules Series, inaugurated in 1984.

Its biggest detractors might be disappointed to learn that Saturday’s one-off Test in Perth was a major success and the patient is showing signs of a remarkable recovery – Ireland may have lost the Test, but one could argue that their second half revival saved the series.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, though, and while the game was hugely enjoyable, competitive and played in the right spirit in front of an enthusiastic crowd - the full house sign at Patersons Stadium was up since Friday morning - getting it right for a one-off Test doesn’t necessarily mean that formula is the panacea that will guarantee a full recovery and a bright future.

Páraic Duffy and his AFL counterpart Gillon McLachlan met after the game on Saturday night and Duffy was very positive when he spoke to the media the following morning. “We didn’t make any decision (on the number of tests) but broadly speaking we’re all very positive about it and had discussions with Gill and they’re very positive about wanting to come to Ireland next year. We want it to happen but we have to get clearance from Central Council,” he said.

There are still a number of issues to sort out. First on the agenda is next year’s series, which technically shouldn’t take place because of a two-in-three-years agreement between the two organisations reached back in 2008. However, that can be conveniently and easily forgotten, and the noises coming from both camps during the week in Perth – and indeed after the game last night – suggested that it would be folly not to capitalise on the momentum gained by this week’s rebirth.

The overwhelming feeling on Saturday, however, was one actually of a missed opportunity, as there was something of a sense of anti-climax when the Irish comeback fell short and there was no chance to make amends in a second Test a week later.

The two-Test formula is a tricky one for the Aussies, though, as taking a team to Ireland for two games in November next year would mean the players, most of whom are in their off-season, would have to sacrifice three weeks’ holidays to go on tour. Their AFL clubs are also far less likely to release their prized assets for two games and risk injury ahead of the new season. When Nat Fyfe suffered a relatively minor shoulder injury in their warm-up game in Sydney last Tuesday, he was immediately pulled by Fremantle, who weren’t taking any chances with the well-being of their best young player.

While the AFL managed to convince the best of the best to pull on the Australian ‘jumper’ this year, the players gathered for the first time last Sunday will be back at their clubs by this evening. Aussie forward Nick Riewoldt, one of the outstanding exponents of the compromise code, glowed with what appeared to be genuine pride in the post-match press conference while after kicking each of his glorious four overs, Geelong’s Steve Johnson pumped his fist in celebration. They seemed to love the experience, but it’d be interesting to see how many of the same players would put their hands up to travel to Ireland for a two-Test tour next year.

And therein lies the rub – because the series is really only worth persevering with if the Australians can guarantee that they will bring their best players, and if they can commit to two Tests rather that one. If last night’s game proved anything, it is that when the best players from both countries go to-to-toe (metaphorically, thankfully) then the International Rules is a fascinating spectacle staying true to the original concept. In the first half especially, the Aussies were a joy to watch and proved without doubt that the very best AFL players can easily adapt to the round ball and the rule changes.

It’s a cliché at this stage, but the players clearly get a genuine kick out of representing their country and to deny amateur GAA players the opportunity to test themselves against the best from a professional code would be unfair.

There are those who argue it’s a waste of money, but the International Rules is self-financing, with the revenue from home Tests paying for trips Down Under, which is why the idea of taking one of the Tests to New York next year, mooted by the AFL during the week and mentioned once again by their coach Alastair Clarkson after the game, got a cool response from GAA President Liam O’Neill and Ireland manager Paul Earley.

Clarkson is the best coach in the business and he was very clear in stating that he would love the opportunity to lead the Aussies on tour next year – be that in Ireland, the US or both. Earley would also no doubt jump at the chance to get revenge on home soil.

Finding the right formula is always the hardest part of this tricky business, but after Saturday, it now seems like there is a genuine desire to get the whole thing going again. When it’s done right, with a full buy-in from both sides, the International Rules is definitely worth fighting for.

**

The opinions expressed here are personal and not necessarily those of the GAA.




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