Genuine fans won’t compromise when it comes to quality sport
International Rules has had its day and it’s time to call it a glorious failure
A fight breaks out between the Ireland and Australia teams in 2006, one of several dust-ups for which the International Rules game was infamous over the years. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The GAA and the AFL must realise by now that it is all over for the International Rules, which will be remembered as one of the strangest experiments in the history of sport – in so far as it will be remembered at all.
The failure of the game to ignite is nobody’s fault and there were times, during the wilder moments of its history, when you could see the glint of genius behind the original idea. Yes, it was fast. It required absolute commitment and bravery. It fairly shook with patriotic fervour. It was unpredictable.
Thrilling episodes of play sometimes broke out, unexpectedly and for reasons nobody could figure out. The fights often lasted longer than the average world heavyweight title bout. And there was a time when every schoolchild in Ireland could rattle off the name Robert DiPierdomenico.
But the problem is that it was never really a sport. The failure of the game was contained in the original name dreamed up for it: the Compromise Rules. Any kind of a compromise involves asking people to do something they don’t really want to do. For the Aussies, the compromises were obvious. They had to agree to play a sport with a round ball – the shape of choice for most ball sports enthusiasts in the world but for the Australians a perverted and comical object. They had to compromise their instinctive urge to beat the Irishmen up at the slightest provocation. They had to brave the shock of the Irish climate in October. The main compromise which the Irish lads had to make was with their good health. The abiding image of the entire spectacle may be that of Graham Geraghty flung like a rag-doll onto the surface of Croke Park and stretchered off with concussion.
The spirit behind the game – to give two traditional, indigenous games an international dimension was honourable. The one thing that may save the game from the dustbin is the fact that 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of Australia’s barnstorming tour not just of Ireland, mind, but of “the world” in 1967.
The Aussies, led by Harry Beitzel, might have ventured blissfully through the Emerald Isle except for the fact that the Meathies – of course – got wind of the fact that there was a bunch of strangers knocking around who wouldn’t mind a rumble. In fact, they fancied they could beat the Irish at Gaelic footie. You can’t be saying that sort of stuff within earshot of Trim or Ashbourne and get away with it.
So a duel was hastily organised, with Croke Park the venue. The late, great Paddy Downey of this parish was among the sceptical spectators who watched the visitors duly master the masters. “We ate mounds of humble pie at Croke Park last week when those bronzed Aussie boys, in their sleeveless jerseys, looking like a line-up for a Mr Universe contest, vindicated Mr Beitzel’s prediction.”
One theory says Meath men were a changed species after that day, subjected as they were to both the dazzling examples of Aussie manhood and the subsequent beating on the field.
There is a school of thought which believes that all of those teak-tough Meath teams which followed were a response to the humiliation of that day. Still, a relationship of a sort had been born – even if it took another two decades to get going.
By then, the Irish lads had taken to wearing the sleeveless shirt favoured by the Australians and even though they looked deathly pale, they made it work.