Despite optimism, International Rules may not come up to measure this year
GAA president optimistic that the game’s medium-term future can be secured
Ireland’s Aidan O’Shea in action against Australia during the 2017 International Rules series at the Adelaide Oval, Adelaide, Australia. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Although GAA president John Horan expressed optimism at the weekend that a resumption of the International Rules series was imminent, a number of issues will have to be resolved before the internationals are up and running again and time is getting tight if the intention is to stage a series later this year.
In his annual address to congress, Horan held out hope that a medium-term arrangement was in the offing.
“It’s clear that there is a lot of common ground between the GAA and the AFL,” he said, “and the opportunity to represent their country and play in the International Rules series is an honour highly valued by our best Gaelic footballers over the last four decades.
“We are close to finalising an agreement between both associations that will secure the future of the International Rules series for the next five years.”
When Horan was in Australia for last November’s Wild Geese challenge, he met with the AFL with a view to agreeing a Test series for 2019.
It was last held two years ago in Australia with Tests in Adelaide and Perth and in the aftermath, then GAA director general Páraic Duffy was buoyant about the future of the internationals, convinced that an at-times ambivalent Australian attitude was no longer a concern.
“It might have been a question seven or eight years ago but not anymore. Their players have bought into it. They’re very happy that it’s the All-Australians and they want it to continue so there’s no question of it not going ahead. Gillon’s [McLachlan, CEO of the AFL] attitude has made that very clear.”
Notwithstanding the optimism, no series took place in 2018, as the GAA and AFL were said to be laying the ground for a longer-term deal.
Part of the problem was logistical with the Australians anxious to build into the schedules a Test in the US, as Duffy acknowledged in 2017.
“They’re very keen on going to the States so we’re going to push hard on that and see if it’s possible. The whole issue has been getting a venue in the US because of the size of American football pitches.”
In the event, nothing has been confirmed. The proposed American venture has been the latest manifestation of the AFL desire to secure a promotional foothold in the US, where of course the GAA is very strong on the ground.
It poses a specific difficulty for the GAA. Any Test on the other side of the Atlantic would be part of the Irish series but since the resumption of the internationals 20 years ago, Croke Park has always insisted that involvement would have to be self-financing.
Clearly, there would be additional costs in going to the US and a reduction in the gate receipts in Ireland. The AFL are believed to be willing to contribute towards the expense but it is not believed that precise figures have yet been agreed.
There are other issues from the Irish side. With the major changes to the playing calendar in recent years, difficulties have arisen for players still involved in championships with their clubs. The months traditionally used for the internationals, October and more recently November, are now designated as the close season for inter-county matches.
Controversy arose last year with the Fenway Classic in Boston and the Wild Geese challenge in Sydney involving county teams and there are bound to be concerns that the playing of two Tests at this time of the year would create further awkwardness over the charge that it is hypocritical for Croke Park to insist on no activities for counties while organising international events.
In recent years it has become more noticeable that club commitments are creating difficulties for players interested in the international series and whereas this can’t be easily resolved if at all, suggestions that the AFL might want to move the series forward to October would make the task of an Ireland manager extremely difficult given the greater volume of club involvement in that month.
The series has struggled since its heyday up to the mid-2000s when record crowds attended in both Ireland and Australia. Violence on the field caused the GAA to withdraw for a year in 2007 from what had been an annual event. Since then a rough schedule of two series every three years has applied but with no set intervals.
There have been gap years in 2007, ’09 (which was unscheduled), ’12, ’16 and ’18.
It is still possible that John Horan’s optimism may be indicated and a series fixed for later this year. If this doesn’t happen it would be the first time since the modern internationals began, in 1999, that two years had elapsed without the game being played.