Domestic problem more pressing than the International Rules series
It will take until next year to establish if series with Australia can be saved but rates hike demands immediate attention
Australia captain Daniel Wells leads his team out before the International Rules Series first Test against Ireland at Breffni Park last weekend. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Getty Images
In the 15 years since the International Rules series was resumed, there have been plenty of difficulties at the Ireland-Australia interface. The difficulties of the series were being discussed yesterday between the GAA and AFL and there’s no point in coming to cast-iron conclusions about the future until the second Test is over.
It may be that there’s simply no formulation capable of saving the internationals.
For all the AFL’s apparent enthusiasm – and remember, they proved themselves very keen to refloat the series after its suspension in 2007 – for the idea, how feasible is it for them to lean on their clubs, which are commercial concerns, and professional players, contracted to those concerns, to ensure that Australia can guarantee stronger teams than they have been recently fielding?
If I was on the AFL side, I might enquire whether the GAA had any plans to streamline its club competitions so that assembling the best Irish panel might prove less of a battleground than has become the case in the last five years or so.
I might also bristle at the complaining about the ‘poor quality’ of recent Australian sides, as whenever the AFL put together formidable collectives and administered sound thrashings, the Irish would come back whingeing and looking to change the rules to make it easier to compete.
Naturally I would also be interested in establishing a happy medium and returning to such days as 1999, 2002 and ’03 as well as 2010 when the series proved competitive all the way until the final quarter of the second Test – in other words seeing two quality selections contest two keenly-fought Test matches.
The ultimate verdict will come in a year’s time when the extent to which the Australian players and public have re-engaged with the series becomes clear because it’s fairly apparent from general reaction to this year’s series that the interest of the Irish public needs to be won all over again.
Switching tack, one area in which Ireland can indisputably learn from Australia is the public culture of sports participation.
Allowing that the country has a climate more conducive to outdoor pursuits, there is also a huge disparity in the provision of facilities for citizens of all ages.
Historically, in Ireland the state has left the provision of recreational sports facilities to the various organisations and associations, especially the GAA, which has provided a national leisure infrastructure.
The contribution of the association to Irish society continues to be significant, as illustrated in the ESRI’s 2005 publication The Social and Economic Value of Sport, which focused on sporting involvement and highlighted the extent of the GAA’s role in society.
It found that Gaelic games supply 42 per cent of all volunteers in the recreational sport sector.
Accordingly eyes were raised within the GAA – and also the IRFU and FAI who are similarly affected in respect of the Aviva – by the news that Croke Park’s rates have been hiked from €528,000 to €2.112 million.
The matter was raised last week in the Dáil by former All-Ireland- winning manager and now Fine Gael TD John O’Mahony, who spelled out the position.
“The increase will amount to €3.5 million, which accounts for well over 50per cent of the funding which these organisations get from the Irish Sports Council in order to deliver various coaching programmes around the country for members.
“These organisations provide massive business and economic benefit to our capital city and cities, towns and villages throughout the country . . .
“As a result of the economic position, the Government has had to reduce the investment in sport over a number of years. All of these organisations have volunteers who provide not just an economic but a social benefit to communities, involving the young and not so young.”
Taking the question on behalf of the Government, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Jan O’Sullivan argued that striking rates wasn’t a matter for the Government and said the proposed bill reflected the commercial activity in big stadia, such as bars which were in competition with other bars with no derogation from whatever rate is struck.
Firstly, the matter can of course be regulated by statute and secondly the bars in Croke Park generally avail of business in and around match time, meaning that the other premises in the catchment benefit substantially from having up to 82,000 people making their way to and dispersing from Jones’s Road.
The stadium’s profits are repatriated to the GAA’s Central Council and, as O’Mahony pointed out, 86 per cent of the association’s profits are redistributed around the various units, provincial, county and club.
Sports organisations are doing so much that is of benefit to society.
A current example is the campaign to counter childhood obesity, an epidemic that would be far worse were it not for the number of children playing supervised sport.
US sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, in which he outlined the decline in team bowling since the 1950s, presenting it as a metaphor for social alienation, had this to say:
“Sport and recreation provides the catalyst for community gatherings, from small functions to major events, where people play, talk and share experiences.
“Importantly it has a positive effect that reaches many levels of our society; in short, sport and recreation create social capital.
“This is important because places with high levels of social capital are safer, better governed and more prosperous, compared to those places with low levels of social capital.”
All sports bodies understand that the public purse is largely empty and they’ve had to cope with that.
But allowing the effective taxation of what money they do raise to fund their activities makes absolutely no sense.