Ireland and Australia struggling under the weight of their international rules crisis
Every solution exacerbates another problem, as the GAA and AFL try to keep to the rules
The stage has been reached, over the past two away series, at which Irish players haven’t been able to travel because of trailing county championships. Irish manager Paul Earley says this has become a major issue. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
At the beginning of the most recent international rules series two years ago in Australia in the pithiest statement of a succession of pithy press conferences, then Ireland manager Anthony Tohill outlined the dangers facing the whole project.
“What are the risks to the series? The risks are: that it degenerates down the violence route and if that happens, that’s it done; another risk is that one country gets too good at it . . . The third thing is that there’s apathy from players and amongst spectators.”
Time flies and it’s all of 10 years since the series peaked with the last of the 100,000-plus attendances in Australia as well as a tight, reasonably well behaved series decided on aggregate after the two tests had been shared.
Nearly everything since, as Tohill’s remarks indicate, has been about fire fighting in areas of discipline, one-sided contests, the promotional disruption caused by a daft re-scheduling of the series from annually to twice every three years and the alarming fall-off in public interest, especially in Australia.
As a result discussion of the series’ future has slipped from the optimism of the early years of the resumption in 1998, featuring ambitious if impractical ideas such as a third test and taking the series to the US.
In its place are more desperate prescriptions – as unlikely as before but prompted by the air of negativity that now permeates the series’ increasingly existential concerns – such as staging all series in Ireland, a concept that caused panic attacks among the travelling press corps two years ago but which was intended to take out of the equation ailing interest levels in Australia.
The dynamic that has caused the greatest difficulty is the manner in which every solution appears to impact adversely on some other issue. For instance when disciplinary breaches threatened the future of the series and caused the first fateful suspension in 2007, the rules were changed to penalise miscreants more stringently.
There has since been an uneasy feeling that the rule changes, accepted by a penitent AFL, have acted like a lobotomy on the Australian players: cutting out the wild stuff but much else besides and running the danger of making the game too quiescent.
These dangers can be overstated on the field but for the Australian public, the series has lost its appeal. Maybe this is because of poor promotion or bad timing or the reluctance of leading players to get involved, but the environment in which six-digit crowds watched the series in Australia in 1999 and 2003 doesn’t appear to exist any more.
That is largely a reflection on the disengagement of so many top AFL players, some from indifference and others for reasons of injury management. To pep up interest in Australia – as much among players as public -–the AFL decided some months ago to field a wholly indigenous team in the series that starts this week.
This was an innovative move by the AFL to recognise indigenous players and talking to two of them, Eddie Betts and Tony Armstrong, yesterday, there was no doubting their genuine pride in being asked to represent Australia – only the second time an Aboriginal team has been asked to do so in any sport for over a century. But it cuts across the accepted marketing of the series as a full international competition.
It would be similar to the GAA deciding to nominate Ulster as interprovincial winners to represent Ireland.
Ominously there is a sense that the two constituent games are struggling even to accommodate the international series, let alone put the better foot forward. An expanded AFL has reduced the close season and made the participation of Australian players less likely and consequently impacted on attendances.
Unable to travel
From a situation in Ireland where the best players were largely willing to engage with the series and mostly accommodated in doing so, the stage has been reached, over the past two away series, at which Irish players haven’t been able to travel because of trailing county championships.
Ireland manager Paul Earley said earlier this month that this had now become a major issue.
“It’s difficult because club competitions are being pushed back farther and farther in the year. I think maybe seven or eight years ago, you might have had a smaller number involved at this stage because a lot of club competitions would be over. But a lot of counties have only started in August and some in September.”
One senior GAA official privately expressed the anxiety that the internationals were becoming virtually impossible to organise with all the club schedule over-runs.
Inconvenience to the international panel won’t have any of the hundreds of club players who are left idle for vast swathes of the summer reaching for their violins but it’s another perspective on the fixtures chaos.
More pertinently this week though it’s the latest problem being heaped on the beleaguered internationals, which could really do with a compelling, well attended series.