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.
There was a definite sense that Ireland’s international honour was at stake during the most tumultuous years of the series when Aussie coach John Todd branded us “wimps” after the first Test in Perth in 1986, when the Irish trooped off the field, parched and battered and looking like extras from Mad Max.
The Compromise Rules was essentially lawless and brilliantly nuts at that time. It wasn’t so much an agreed merging of two national sports as a madcap amalgamation of every sport and activity you could think of, with bits of rugby, bare-knuckle boxing, sprinting, Greco-Roman wrestling, high-jumping and even judo evident during the pell-mell of an average Test
Perhaps the highlight of the entire Rules history was the moment when the Irish team jumped through a paper hoop which said The Irish Do It With More Skill. Bear in mind that this was the mid 1980s: the GAA did not go in for clever sexual innuendo. Yet here were the Spillane brothers , Joe McNally, Mick Lyons and Jack O’Shea jumping through a paper hoops much as Evel Knievel himself used to do.
So the International Rules provided a much needed jolt of self-confidence then. It was good to win at a sport against another country – even if it was a sport that nobody else played and which ranked second only to Formula One in terms of the insane danger element. Then it was shelved in 1990.
The attempt to revitalise it in 1998 was understandable too. The successful transition pioneered by Jim Stynes, a man idolised in both countries, of Gaelic players making it in Aussie Rules strengthened the link between the sports. The new name was a bit better but not much: International Rules sounds like something you’d find in a bureau drawer in Brussels to deal with fishing rights off the Irish Sea. And there was a public appetite for the revitalised game. Improbably – it began to attract big crowds.
The problem was that when the game was allowed to run along its natural impulses, it ended up in a fight. It could be argued that the series was worth salvaging just for Kieran McGeeney’s immortal “If you want to box say you want to box and we’ll box” observation. The Armagh man caught the essence of the series in that one line. There were years when the Aussies clearly did want to box – particularly when they grew frustrated with the football. And in the years when they just played football, it became a bit boring.
Now that the both the GAA and AFL have successfully tamed the game, they find that once robbed of its Ned Kelly qualities, there isn’t really much of a game there. At least the International Rules has proven how wrong and stupid it would be to bring the “mark” into Gaelic football, an improvisation which stops play, kills momentum and allows defences to reassemble.
But International Rules can’t become a game because there is no game. Nobody plays it! It only exists for a fortnight in a given year! There are only two teams! And they live on opposite sides of the world! No series lasts forever– not even The Sopranos.
The International Rules has had its day – and its night. It is time to call it a glorious failure and say no hard feelings, mate.