International Rules series to return but long-term issues remain
Series will now switch to biennial cycle after unprecedented two-year hiatus
Ireland’s Aidan O’Shea with Shaun Burgoyne of Australia in 2017. Australia won the last series 2-0. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The International Rules series has taken some tentative steps back into existence with the announcement on Monday that there would be two series played in the next three years, one in Ireland in 2020 and a return in Australia in 2022.
Next year there are Tests pencilled in for 15th and 21st November in Croke Park and one other venue.
Whereas there was clearly some hard work done on both sides to revive the series, its long-term future wouldn’t appear any closer to being secured. The one element that would appear to be now part of any long-term future is that the Tests will take place on a biennial basis.
The international project hasn’t really recovered from the events in the middle of the last decade – indiscipline on the field – which derailed what had up until then been an annual event.
The GAA declared a moratorium in 2007 and since then no regular place has been found for the series, which was officially declared to have switched to a twice-in-three years frequency in 2008.
Since then, the gap years have been random – 2009, 2012, ’16, ’18 and ’19, making the past two years the first in the history of the modern series, which resumed 20 years ago, to have featured no internationals.
There had been some hopes earlier this year that this wouldn’t happen. GAA president John Horan was bullish after February’s annual congress that the series could be up and running later in 2019 but this proved impractical. Even so, Horan’s vision was at that stage more expansive than that announced in the media.
“We are close to finalising an agreement,” he said in Wexford last February, “between both associations that will secure the future of the International Rules series for the next five years.”
Given the challenges facing the series, getting agreement for a further two isn’t to be dismissed but the difficulties remain.
The AFL has been expanded this decade and the consequences have included a shorter close-season. In Ireland during the same period the focus on club fixtures has made the release of players to the international panel more and more problematic.
These twin problems have moved the AFL and GAA closer in one respect: there no longer appears much appetite on the Irish side for the restoration of an annual series – once every two years is now seen as more feasible.
The Australians remain wedded to the idea of making the series “more international” and they will again prepare for next year’s series in New York. After the conclusion of the most recent series in 2017 in Australia, there had been talk of playing a test in North America.
In the event, nothing materialised although venues were considered. The proposed American venture was 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 and a test in America would add to costs and – as it would have to be part of a Northern Hemisphere series – undermine revenue.
It is a pity that the series has drifted so much in recent years, as the 2017 Tests were contested by strong selections and although Australia won the series 2-0, Ireland were competitive throughout and the quality of play was high on both days with an average attendance of just under 28,000.