Harmony lost as GAA and AFL sing off different hymn sheets

Future of international series grows bleaker as search for solutions to public apathy becomes increasingly desperate

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the resumption of the International Rules series, although there have been some bumps along the way such as this dispute between the sides in 1998. IPhotograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the resumption of the International Rules series, although there have been some bumps along the way such as this dispute between the sides in 1998. IPhotograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Wed, Jul 10, 2013, 09:35

In a way it’s miraculous that the International Rules series is getting ready to mark the 15th anniversary of its modern resumption back in 1998 and in 12 months it will be 30 years since the very first official Tests were played to coincide with the GAA’s centenary.

During that time the international concept motored impressively through a golden age in roughly the first half of the last decade before the wheels started to come off. There’s no point in getting too worked up about whose fault it was because both associations have played fast and loose with the welfare of the project as it has suited them at various stages.

The Australians were complacent about the dangers of violent indiscipline and the Irish a bit prone to whinging about all of their disadvantages.

Then the GAA drove the idea of chopping one year in three out of the international cycle, which has effectively hobbled the whole exercise by shutting down its momentum and denying it an annual place in the calendar – in the process making the logistical arrangements harder to fix in those years when it does take place.

The GAA were miffed during the 125 celebrations in 2009 when the AFL pulled out of travelling and postponed their visit for 12 months, as the Australians had been keen to have the International Rules series play a part in their 150th anniversary the previous year, which it duly did.

Now as a result of what has been a solo run over the past few months by Andrew Demetriou, the AFL chief executive, with zero consultation with the GAA, the Australians are to experiment with this year’s series by restricting their selection to indigenous AFL footballers.

Threaten the future
Speaking after the attendance in Melbourne’s first Test had fallen to an historic low two years ago, GAA director general Páraic Duffy pointed out how this – despite good attendances in Ireland – was beginning to threaten the future of the series.

The scale of the decline in Australia is stark. Crowds attending the series reflect plummeting attendances: 101,228 (2003), 84,523 (’05), 77,976 (’08) and 35,466 (’11). Although Irish crowds are considerably better they too reflect a downwards trend over the same period: 115,521 (2002), 106,885 (‘04), 112,127 (’06) and 91,959 (’10). Duffy was at pains to spell out the implications.

“. . . if the numbers fall here I think inevitably they will start to fall in Ireland . That would cause an issue because if our attendances were to fall to a similar level we simply couldn’t afford it. We wouldn’t want to pay for this to any great degree out of normal GAA funding. It is cost neutral at the moment – at one stage it was profitable . . . If it got to a stage because of falling attendances that we couldn’t afford it that would be a factor as well.”

That defined one of the big differences between the GAA and the AFL. Croke Park have to make the international series self financing. With their massive financial clout – in the year of the 2011 series, the AFL had an operating surplus of $234 million (€180 million) – the Australians can should they wish keep the series going if no-one attends.

Compare that with the GAA’s operating surplus for the same year, €7,708,000, to get some sense of the financial disparities.

Into this already delicate situation comes the recent announcement that the AFL are to select an all-indigenous panel for this year’s series in Ireland. The reasons behind the idea might be laudable tapping into the ethnic pride of the players to create a renewed commitment to what is clearly a flagging concept.

With the AFL season longer because of the addition of new clubs and the close season correspondingly shorter the inclination of Australian players to participate has been on the wane anyway. Will this revive it?

Shunned starlets
When questioned about the views of non-indigenous players, who might want to play in this year’s series, AFL deputy chief executive Gillon McLachlan adapted the Elvis Presley line to starlets who had shunned him in his early days: you had your chance.

“The players have had plenty of chances historically to represent Australia in the International Rules series and haven’t been available. I don’t think there’s any disguising the fact in 2011 there weren’t many of our senior players available to play in that series.”

But that was true of all players and not just non-indigenous footballers, as the Australians put out as weak a selection as they ever have and underwent historically severe beatings as a result. The report of the launch of the initiative on the AFL website had tucked away at the end a line about the GAA “supporting the concept”.

In fact the GAA is snookered on this. Unable to vent its concerns in public for fear of talking down this year’s series or appearing racially insensitive, the GAA statements to date have expressed their “support” in resounding terms of “it’s up to the AFL and there’s not much we can do about it”.

Marketing the series this year to an increasingly sceptical public would be tricky enough without gambling with the international dimension. The calibre of the players being mentioned in connection with the series is impressive. Adam Goodes was an outstanding captain in 2010 and players such as Shaun Burgoyne and Lance Franklin would be natural choices whatever the selection definition.

But the designation is clearly a representative level below full international – the best players available in the AFL regardless of ethnic origin – and that runs the risk of adversely impacting on the GAA’s home series.

Whatever the chance of building an audience, when both sides are signing off the same hymn sheet, the current discordant noises are sounding increasingly like a requiem.