The Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce held a lunch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground yesterday to mark the International Rules series, taking place in Perth this day week. Among the attendance were well-known faces, such as Sonia O’Sullivan, and the guests were former players of the international game from both countries.
The event was compered by Dermott Brereton, a legend (in the least hyperbolic sense) of the AFL game who also played for and managed Australia in the International Rules arena. Brereton was joined on stage by Terry Daniher, a former Australia captain plus two well-known Kerry men – a touch of Yerra on the Yarra – footballer Tadhg Kennelly and broadcaster Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh.
It’s all of 30 years since the international project was first undertaken and as the anecdotes flew it would have dawned on some present the extent to which the hybrid game now has an actual history – middle-aged men able to reminisce about their playing days.
Their ranks mightn’t swell much further the way things have gone for the series in recent years. Next weekend sees the first one-Test series in the history of the game and a sense that the engagement might be the last.
Even the AFL, curiously lukewarm in their attention to the internationals over the past few years, have put a big effort into involving the Australian game’s best players and throwing everything at one test.
“It’s a show of solidarity by the players,” says Brereton speaking after the lunch. “They’re saying, ‘we don’t get an opportunity anymore as State of Origin (AFL equivalent of the Railway Cup) players so this is our only chance to play representative football’.”
Brereton was so embarrassed by Australia’s abject showing last year that he contacted the AFL.
“Yes I was. I made contact with the AFL and said, ‘if you need a hand – I don’t want to see that happen again’. They said, ‘that’s alright; we’re on to it’. The process is starting to make sure that does not happen again.”
Ireland manager Paul Earley, himself a former AFL player with Melbourne, is acutely conscious of this backdrop to the Test match. He frequently talks about players "minding the jersey" for future series and doing their best to ensure the continuation of the series.
He is also grappling with one of the occupational hazards of those involved in the series: the constant tweaking of rules to try and handicap the previous winners and encourage the losers.
The problem for Ireland is that recent Australian teams have been so poor that they were easily beaten and a far more formidable collective will take advantage of the tweaking next weekend.
“It certainly favours the Australians and I don’t think there was a necessity to have it because once Australia play their top team they’re always extremely competitive. Having said that, we have to deal with the hand that we have been given.”
Most conspicuous in the tweaking is the prohibition of the short kick-out, used frequently by Ireland to avoid aerial contests with bigger opponents. Now the ball will have to travel 45 metres, giving the opposition more time to read its flight and mark its intended receivers. There have also been changes to the number of hand-passes allowed in succession and the amount of inter-change.
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea, one of the game’s great fielders, accepts that there will be added pressure on players like him under the new dispensation. “There’ll be an awful lot of bodies around the middle. I don’t think you’re going to see that many contested wins but with that many bodies, there’ll be difficulty getting possession and whoever wins that scramble will win the game I think.”
“The kick-out over the 45 certainly favours a contesting team,” says Earley, “and that’s one that has posed us a few challenges over the last number of weeks because it’s so different to the way Gaelic football is played now where a lot of the kick-outs are short and played to a player who is not being marked tightly.
“Six hand-passes, the rotations are up to 15. I think we used our rotations pretty well last year, we had a good plan and we executed it well. In some Australian Rules games the average number of rotations are up to 120, 130 a game so that suits Australia as well. The rules are there and we have to play as best we can to them.”
As well as new challenges are the ghosts of old problems. Although violent misconduct is no longer a chronic concern, history teaches that it has a habit of erupting when least expected.
“There’s always a risk. Absolutely, there’s always a risk, but we all have to be mindful of the future. We’re only minding the jersey really and we’ve got to all take a responsibility to ensure that we all try and play the game in the right spirit so that it continues.
“Our players certainly love the game and as long as the majority of our best players want to play this I support it and I think there’s a future for it. It’s a great game when it’s played well and played in the right spirit. I can’t control what the other team does but I can certainly control what we do.”
Since 2006 the series no longer gets played annually but twice in a three-year cycle. Earley believes that if the future is to be a one-Test series, that will have to be played every year.
Brereton agrees but sees the gap year as a bad idea regardless of how many Tests are played. “Yeah, that’s a bugger isn’t it? You need regularity. People lose track. They’ll come to a game and see what may be a splendid, wonderful performance and they’ll say, ‘I can’t wait until the next time’ and it’s three years before it comes around again.”
Speaking to the media yesterday Earley made it clear what he believes is at stake. “Many people have asked the question, ‘is this a critical game for the future of the series?’ I’ve had that discussion with ye in the past and it is, there’s no doubt about that. It is.”