Passion flares in arranged marriage
There was a heavy sigh of disappointment at Croke Park yesterday when it transpired that the third quarter fist fight wasn't an institutional ritual of the new sport, like the seventh innings stretch in baseball. Still, for a crude mutt of a game born out of two other mongrels, the International Rules series which finished in Croke Park yesterday was surprisingly charismatic.
The last time this column took an interest in the hybrid game was when an Aussie team came to Dublin in 1978 and played the reigning All-Ireland champions in Croke Park. Those of us who could never have imagined anything larger or more fearsome than Brian Mullins were surprised to see the species of footballer imported from down under fetching at will and slapping our gallant Dublin chaps on the snout if they dared intervene.
It was surprising then to note that during the intervening 20 years we appear as a race to have experienced the sort of muscular growth which Michelle de Bruin experiences in the course of a winter's training. Gaelic football is faster and more furious now than it ever was and the gap between the codes has narrowed.
Has the International Rules game got a future? Well a more co-ordinated approach from the both participating nations would help. This time around the marketing has generally left a lot to be desired and the bumper attendance at yesterday's game is a suggestion of the inate possibilities of the code. On a manky day in October to get 35,000 people into Croke Park for an event with little history or context suggests that the spectacle and the concept are worthwhile.
The publicity for the two-match series was carried out with only the slightest liberalisation of the GAA's secrecy code. We didn't know nearly enough about the Australians, their season or which of them were the folk heroes and which were the Jason Donovans.
It was odd also that the Irish didn't announce their line-ups till the day of the game. To have allowed the genuine experts of the media to dissect and analyse team selections during the week of the game would have annexed a few column inches.
As for Colm O'Rourke's suggestion that Australia give Ireland one of their best players for the second test, why not have gone the whole hog and built a head start for the poor little country into the rules?
Television was slow coming to grips with the series too. Is it possible if the games are to continue to work out some sort of contra rights deals which leaves RTE showing weekly highlights packages of Australian Rules and an Australian channel showing packages of Gaelic games, both packages to feature comment and discussion of the International Rules game?
It is difficult to know at this stage if the game can survive and prosper as an entity by itself. The geographical distance between the competing teams makes it anything but a local derby when they get together and neither association seems likely to make attempts to nurture the game at a grass roots level, with schoolboys opting for International Rules instead of Gaelic or Australian Rules.
Yet, as a laboratory for testing the possibilities of either parent game, the International Rules child raises a number of useful issues, regarding high fielding, the tackle and duration of play.
It is a national aspiration enshrined in our Constitution that some day our pastures might once again be graced by high-fielding footballers who as a breed died out after the fluoridation of water. In recent times only Viagra has had more claims made on its behalf than The Mark. The return of the sacred practice of high fielding is prescribed as the perfect palliative to take the limpness out of Gaelic football. The Mark is your only man to do it.
Is it possible? Probably not. In olden times when players were less mobile it was possible for the bigger lumps to become airborne and to pluck the ball from the sorts of altitudes where the air was thin. The modern arts of pulling, dragging, bunching and, most noble of all, standing on the toes of rivals have supplanted high fielding as a means of gaining clean possession.
The mark, by making the currency of the high catch all the more valuable, would surely also increase the worth of the dark arts of spoiling. The mark works in the International Rules code because neither side places a great premium on tight marking; fluidity of movement is more useful. In Gaelic football we are obsessed with having players conjoined at the shoulder. There is no worse mortal sin than "letting your man have a yard of space".
It would be interesting to tamper, though. Perhaps a limited mark for balls caught above the head between the two 50s is worth experimenting with, as is the switch to a 13-a-side game which might free up some space on a Gaelic pitch and diminish the rigidity which has been strangling the game.
The bearhug tackle of the compromise game is an ugly thing, but at least it is easily understandable. Gaelic football suffers not, as commonly thought, from having no defined tackle but from having a tackle so specifically and carefully defined that it is inadvisable to attempt it without having both a lawyer and a priest present.
The manly embracing which the International Rules game has licensed would probably be too robust for a poorly-disciplined game like Gaelic football to stomach.
For all the airheaded nonsense written by opponents of the series in the last few weeks to the effect that the antipodean visitors were all on block release from the prison in The Silence of the Lambs, the free-for-all punch-up is virtually a thing of the past in the Australian game. The lurch towards full professionalism has eradicated such moments of spontaneous exuberance. Gaelic footballers playing voluntarily and for free are unlikely to be as stoical about the business of being wrestled to the ground in junior B games on a frosty Sunday morning.
There were other elements of the International Rules game which were attractive. The four 20-minute quarters were an innovation which Gaelic games might benefit from, the allowing of interchangeable players, if technology existed to allow media to follow the changes adequately, is an exciting idea and the fluorescent yellow jumpsuit worn by the Australian runner would add a camp touch to the Clare selectors. Yesterday was a surprisingly passionate occasion, though, watched by a crowd as big as that which watched Ireland and Malta last week and just as partisan and vocal too. The games' success as a spectacle and as a petri dish for our own rules makes the series worth persevering with. It would add something to the Gaelic year if the series could evolve to the point where the Australians visited Ireland every spring and an Irish team visited Australia every autumn.