It is hard not to conclude that the International Rules has become to sport what dear old Nidge was to fictive characters of the criminal underworld: out of friends and living on borrowed time.
To absolutely no fanfare, the sprawling, messy sporting extravaganza dreamed up between Australian and Irish sporting nationalists in the closing months of the Summer of Love, made its way to Australia this week for a best-of-one series which is due to take place on November 22nd. Nobody has explicitly said it but this tour has all the signs of being a farewell to a strange and at times wonderful experiment which was always destined to end in noble failure.
There has always been one central problem with the sport of International Rules: it doesn’t exist. Nobody plays the game, anywhere in the world, except for the few weeks in autumn when the Aussies and the Irish go at it hammer and tongs. Generations of Irish squads have had to learn how to accept being thrown to the ground by the jersey without retaliating. The Aussies, for their part, have to cope with the strangeness of kicking a round-shaped ball. The Aussies rarely bothered to conceal the fact that they, deep down, always kind of believed that they were beating the Irish at their own game: the shirts may be sleeveless and the scores may be called “overs” but it was difficult to argue against the fact that Compromise Rules was little more than a modified version of Gaelic football. From the beginning, it was completely limited by the fact that it couldn’t grow and develop as a natural sport. Kids from both countries had no interest in playing it as they were besotted with other sports – often Gaelic football and Australian Rules. The world outside was completely unaware of its existence from the beginning and remains so. Still, at its height, the Test series managed to attract crowds of 60,000 in both countries, which is something of a miracle.
Hard to fathom
In fact, the very existence of International Rules is sometimes hard to fathom. It came into being by accident, when 1960s Aussie Rules impresario
took a squad of crack Aussie Rules players on a barnstorming tour of the old world and ended up playing then All-
champions Meath in a challenge match at Croke Park. This was in ’67 and the clash of cultures and skin tones – “those bronzed Aussie giants in their sleeveless shirts” was how
described them from his seat in the press box – was an unusual and exotic sight.
Not to be out done, Peter McDermott brought a crowd of Meath footballers down to Australia to right the slight on Royal manhood. Kerry followed suit. There was vague and ambitious talk of a triangular tournament involving teams from Ireland, New York and Australia. Nothing came of it but the essential point of the future International Rules is contained within those vague conversations. The idea of adding an international dimension to indigenous sports and to giving brilliant athletes a chance to shine on a bigger stage was and remains fine and noble. From the beginning, their hearts were in the right places.
When the AFL and the GAA cobbled together an alliance in the 1980s, the timing was perfect. Ireland was in the grip of a moral and economic recession: everyone was leaving. There seemed to be some kind of perverse universal law at work to ensure that the Irish soccer team could never qualify for a major tournament. The Irish rugby team won sporadic triple crowns but the metamorphosis of rugby into a popular pastime as well as a sport would not happen for over a decade. So the prospect of Ireland versus Australia was new and exciting and different. In 1984, it managed to fire up collective national pride in the idea of an Irish sports team. The Australians were terrific in the role of unrepentant villains: they were lustily booed in Croke Park by the third Test. By 1986, the Rules was big news. Classes were suspended to allow school kids to watch the first Test in Perth, which contained the kind of ultra-violence that would never have passed the keen eye of the film censor of the day.
The original Compromise Rules was less a test of footie skills as an out and out exploration of Irish and Australian manhood. Part of the appeal of the game was that the ball was often irrelevant to what was happening on the field, which was basically a series of intense fist fights, without the hindrance of the Queensbury rules. "Wimps," sniffed John Todd, the Lee Marvin of Aussie Rules, after the Irish were left bloodied and bruised. It was raw and exhilarating and in spite of itself, kind of a success. And almost accidentally, athletes from both countries managed to adapt to the new rules. Dreamers and optimists could see a beautiful future.
“I’ve seen better football in these three Tests than I’ve seen in the last 10 years of Gaelic football,” declared Eugene McGee after the 1987 series. But just three years later, the project was placed in cold storage for a full eight years. Even in its pomp, it had nowhere to go. It was resurrected on the back of sponsors enthusiasms and slick marketing. The speed with which the sport became defined by lawlessness in the 1990s and 2000s was breathtaking. Matches descended into anarchy. The associations issued stern, diplomatic warnings about the future of the series. The public loved it. Both the GAA and the AFL stressed that they were committed to the future of Rules.
In the end, they had to ensure that it became a watered down version of the odd, carnal exhibitions which had characterised the early games. The people began to stay away. The hard truth was that nobody was all that interested in spectacular displays of high fielding and judicious passing from the best Australian and Irish football men. They just wanted to watch them bust one another.
The other problem was that time moved on. Sport from all over the world became available on television all the time – real sports with teams and seasons and traditions. The Rules was locked into a kind of time warp. The best reason for persevering with it was that it clearly meant – and means – a lot to the Irish players to represent their country. Some of the Australians fell for the Rules in a big way but there were years when it seemed like they could take it or leave it. Their domestic schedule is too demanding now and the promise of an autumn trip to Ireland doesn’t hold the same lure as it did 25 years ago.
Like all bold ideas, the International Rules was eccentric and contained the glimmer of brilliance. But that has been extinguished now. It is time to say so long.