Worst sporting moment: Decline of the International Rules series

Brawling, indiscipline and a near life-altering tackle in the 2006 Croke Park Test ‘killed it’

Ireland vs Australia in 2006. Graham Geraghty of Ireland is driven to the ground by Danyle Pearce of Australia, a tackle which led to the Meath man being carried off. File photograph: Inpho

Ireland vs Australia in 2006. Graham Geraghty of Ireland is driven to the ground by Danyle Pearce of Australia, a tackle which led to the Meath man being carried off. File photograph: Inpho

 

In the RTÉ studio during half-time Colm O’Rourke, who had managed Ireland to back-to-back series wins in 1998-99 said in aghast tones that he had just seen an Irish player head-butting Ryan O’Keefe, the lively Sydney Swans attacker and Australia Player of the Series, who was filmed with a bleeding nose gesturing towards match officials.

O’Rourke was using the incident as a reference point for the complete breakdown of any order on the field during the second Test of the 2006 international rules series in Croke Park. He also underlined the co-operative aspect of it all by saying that the two worst fouls had been committed by Irish players.

It had been triggered by an all-in, running battle that erupted within seconds of the start of the match. There were atrocities on both sides but on the old principle of cui bono the Australians, who were aggrieved at what they felt was Ireland’s unpunished aggression in the first Test, always thrived better after these confrontations.

Ireland teams were generally rattled by massed brawls. Whereas physical confrontation between players marking each other is part of Gaelic games the running battles involving both teams isn’t a common occurrence.

Annoyingly for the GAA, neither is it part of the modern Australian game. It simply got resurrected as a tool of intimidation.

When the internationals started in 1984 and ran for four series up to 1990, the Australians played a rougher game than they do now and the volcanic eruptions of some of those series contributed to the shelving of the project for nearly a decade.

Day the music died

From 1998, however, when the AFL officially gave its backing to the series, things had been more professionally administered. But for historians of the international project between the GAA and the AFL, this match on November 5th will be readily identified as the day the music died.

It had looked so promising in prospect. Ireland were taking (albeit a flattering) eight-point lead into the second Test after a successful first floodlit outing to the provinces for the internationals.

The sell-out crowd in Galway’s Pearse Stadium had again demonstrated the popularity of the game and things were nicely set up for the second Test in Croke Park, which was going to be full to capacity.

A dog ran unhindered around the field for nearly 10 minutes – as if some new feature of the hybrid game

It was a decent Australian team, who had looked well capable of winning the first match and there was reassurance for the home support in the precedent that no side in the admittedly short history of the series had overturned an eight-point deficit.

Historians will, however, also be able to point to malign influences that were building and would find expression in the startling violence about to unfold.

At its peak during the years 2002-03, the internationals were well contested and both series went down the straight of the second Test with the entire series on the line. That Ireland lost both wasn’t a slight on the team or the manager, John O’Keeffe.

The main thing was that played in the right spirit as a contest of the skills intrinsic to both games, it worked. Yes, it could get physical but in general it was well managed and flash points addressed before they ignited.

Things started to go wrong in 2004 when a fairly poor Australian team arrived – they just about managed to beat a scratch team of Dublin club footballers in a warm-up – and were soundly beaten in the first Test.

Before the second Test even started the visitors targeted readily identifiable Irish players, who had been prominent in the first Test: Cork’s Seán Ó hAilpín, AFL regular Tadhg Kennelly and Mayo’s Ciarán McDonald whose flowing corn braids excited cries of “get Sheila”.

‘The weird turn pro’

Hunter S Thompson once said, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”, and the Test when it got under way had a bizarre interlude in which a dog ran unhindered around the field for nearly 10 minutes – as if some new feature of the hybrid game.

Significantly no disciplinary action was taken against the assailants (or the dog) either by the match officials or the two organising bodies in the aftermath. Australia coach Garry Lyon angrily disputed that he had orchestrated the attacks and the matter was let drop, probably fatefully.

The mood music wasn’t good. The Australians were unhappy at some of the Irish play in Galway during the first Test

A year later it got worse. If there was a formula fatally to undermine the international series it was uncompetitive Test matches and the return of uninhibited violence and indiscipline. In 2005 up stepped Kevin Sheedy as Australia manager and he provided both.

A genuinely legendary figure as player and coach at Essendon, Sheedy had some international history and had travelled to Ireland in 1978 on a trip organised by AFL umpire Harry Beitzel, an early evangelist of the international connection. When here, Sheedy broke his leg but retained happy memories of the country of his forebears, who came from Cork.

He was one of the last proponents of old-school Aussie rules values with an emphasis on unflinching physicality. Less traditionally he was also an advocate of Aboriginal players in the game and did a lot to encourage that involvement.

For all his exalted status in the AFL – he was named a Hall of Fame Legend two years ago – Sheedy is a central figure in the decline and fall of the international game.

A first for either country

This came in two parts, one commendable and the other less so. In 2005 he built the best Australia team I’ve ever seen, a departure from the big men and aerial dominance that played to their natural strengths.

With a blend of the AFL’s best players and an emphasis on Aboriginal footballers whose speed and deftness on the ball gave the team rapier to complement the usual broadsword, they destroyed Ireland in the first Test in Perth, racking up 100 points – a first for either country.

I remember dropping in to their last practice session before that match in Subiaco Oval and being impressed by a final drill that saw all players, strung across the pitch with a ball each, taking a shot at the posts and watching as the kicks converged like an arrow-head dropping over the bar.

In Melbourne’s Telstra Dome there was no chance of Ireland recovering a 36-point deficit but regardless, they were subjected to some horrific fouls that saw Chris Johnson red-carded and Australian journalists puzzled as to why the home team had deemed it necessary to indulge in such physical intimidation.

The news that one of the brutalised, Tyrone’s Philip Jordan, was an accountant appeared to fascinate them and crystallise their unhappiness at the home team’s tactics. Even Sheedy conceded that some of the tackling had been out of order.

The Australia coach would later create further concern in Croke Park during a dinner a few months later during talks to try to smooth out the diplomatic problems caused by the series.

Talking to a senior GAA official, Sheedy gave no indication that he appreciated the seriousness of what had happened and appeared to believe that the violence had been a selling point.

A year on, heading for Croke Park, a full-house and record attendance, the series appeared to have recovered. Yet the mood music wasn’t good. The Australians were unhappy at some of the Irish play in Galway during the first Test.

Meath’s Graham Geraghty had been cited for a foul on Lindsay Gilbee and after the tribunal had cleared the player, Gilbee in an in interview with Melbourne newspaper the Herald-Sun declared that vengeance would be his. In one of the series’ most enduring quotes, he said: “Put it this way, we will retaliate. It’s open slather [no holds barred] this week.”

Some in the media were becoming alarmed by the drift of this. The Irish Independent’s Martin Breheny raised the threats with the Irish side at a media conference but it was laughed off.

Carefully neck-braced

Twelve minutes into the second Test the laughing had stopped when after the mayhem of the opening minutes had settled a little, Geraghty got caught in a tackle by Danyle Pearce and was thrown to the ground, landing awkwardly.

There was the most awful silence among 82,127 as he received extensive treatment, was carefully neck-braced and placed on the motorised stretcher. It may have been an accident and most fair-minded people accepted it was, including former Ireland manager John O’Keeffe writing in these pages, but in the circumstances it was a disaster.

The random uncertainties of when it would take place have eroded interest

Happily, Geraghty recovered quickly but the effect of his injury on the afternoon was seismic. Seán Boylan, the Ireland manager, went ballistic and wanted to take the team off. The player had captained one of Boylan’s All-Ireland winning Meath teams.

Like Vito Corleone in The Godfather telling the bosses of the other crime families that he would regard anything happening to his son Michael as evidence of ill-will even if they had done nothing, Boylan predictably found it hard to separate the threats from the injury.

In the immediate aftermath both Sheedy and AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou were in high good humour and it became clear that neither could see beyond the full stadium and to an extent their team’s victory.

Eventually, growing tired of what was indignant questioning, Sheedy lashed out: “Every time Australia win, the series is coming to an end. Unbelievable! You’re the greatest conmen I’ve ever met.”

The GAA suspended the series for 2007 and so for the first time since resumption it would not take place annually. Although re-engagement did happen, it appeared as if Ireland needed constant tweaks to the rules to stay competitive.

They would win the series again and in fact have been successful in four of the seven series since but although there were good, competitive Tests along the way, the random uncertainties of when it would take place have eroded interest.

Enthusiasm in both hemispheres has waned and 2021 will mark an unprecedented four years since the last series took place.

On that evening of November 5th 2006, walking across the pitch at Croke Park I met Pat Daly, the GAA’s Director of Games Development. No one had worked as hard as he had to resurrect and maintain the international series. He stood there with a forlorn look on his face.

“I think they’ve killed it,” he said.

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