Road map for where it went wrong for Rules

 

The International Rules has been frequently amended to keep Ireland competitive and softened beyond the Australian taste

MAYBE IT was just the torpid environment of last weekend’s special congress but it’s hard not feel the absence of international rules for the second time in the past three years. Ever since its revival in 1998 up as far as 2007 the series was the big event on the autumn horizon and since 2000 and the adoption of a calendar year for the NFL it has been the only event on that horizon.

It provided the GAA with a promotional focal point during the autumn, brought big-day crowds to Croke Park and gave many of the association’s best footballers a representative outlet that most of them were enthusiastic about having.

So where did it all go wrong? The first break came with the unacceptable levels of violence in the 2005 and ’06 series. It had long been known there were two things the internationals wouldn’t survive: one was excessive indiscipline and the other was consistent inability to compete on the part of one of the countries. Unfortunately what should have been difficult to achieve – a series that managed to be both violent and uncompetitive – was luridly unveiled in the above years, as the AFL teams decided to exact a heavy toll for their technical and physical advantages.

There had traditionally been fault on both sides in respect of indiscipline, a large part of which sprang from cultural confusion when it came to delinquency. What was acceptable fouling to one side wasn’t to the other and things occasionally got out of hand. The up-front violence of some Australian play was genuinely shocking to the GAA whereas the total disrespect shown to match officials by Ireland in 2001 scandalised the Australians, especially when diplomatic attempts were made to explain that such carry-on was part of what we were back home.

It took a radio interview from a young Dermot Earley and a forceful intervention by then president Seán McCague to reassure the hosts that the GAA wasn’t seriously suggesting our cultural identity was under threat from the need to accept authority.

But the middle years of this decade marked a watershed because the Australians decided intimidation was a good way of trying to win the international matches, regardless of rules. The green shoots of anarchy became visible in 2004, a year before the real trouble began.

What was to expert observers the worst Australian team to arrive in Ireland – in the warm-up match they were nearly turned over by a scratch selection of standard, if hardy, Dublin club footballers – took a walloping in the first Test five years ago. The only lessons learned for the second Test were apparently Ireland would be easier to control were they to be assaulted before the throw-in and so Ciarán McDonald and Seán Ó hAilpín, both prominent in the first Test, were targeted.

Disastrously the GAA-AFL joint authorities took no action – perhaps influenced by the fact the home side had nonetheless won comfortably – and the impression got abroad that such behaviour wouldn’t always be punished.

When Kevin Sheedy took over in 2005 he imported some of the scarier traditions of old-school Aussie Rules into the international game. It wasn’t that he prioritised intimidation but he couldn’t see what all of the fuss was about, seeing in the Irish protests nothing more than sore losing. More fatefully for the series, Sheedy – by then near the end of a glittering club career notable for his technical innovation – cracked how the game could be won. By selecting fast and skilful players rather than the biggest he ensured Ireland were outplayed in 2005 and ’06.

Having set the series a formidable problem, he then added another by appearing to allow his players free rein to deal ruthlessly with all physical slights, real and imagined. The result was that Ireland got beaten in every imaginable way.

Discipline was always going to be relatively easy to restore; it just took a bit of resolve on the part of the governing bodies – which duly arrived from the AFL after the GAA refused to play in 2007. Addressing the balance of ability between the countries was always going to be a harder task.

Rules were tweaked and disciplinary sanctions hardened but somewhere along the way you got the impression the Australians’ hearts were no longer in it. For last year’s series Mick Malthouse was a responsible coach, who did nothing to fan the flames that Sheedy liked to stoke so high but you could sense his frustration at the curtailment of so many of his players’ instincts.

The AFL has always appeared restless with its isolation. Australia is remote from the rest of the world and Victoria, where the Rules game is based, is just one state in Australia.

For a while exhibition matches were seen as a means of spreading the game. The international project achieved that in its best years – 2002 and ’03 were its peak period, with series going all the way down to the final minutes of the second Test even if Ireland lost both years – but now the AFL is driven by a missionary zeal to set up new franchises, to accompany the older Adelaide, Perth and Sydney satellites. One view is that they have eyes for nothing else at the moment.

The announcement that the Australians wanted to postpone this year’s series was a bombshell for the GAA. Firstly it showed a lack of consideration for the association’s 125th anniversary celebrations, which the internationals would have brought publicly to a conclusion. Croke Park knew they could have insisted but couldn’t see the point when the AFL was solemnly promising to return in 2010.

Secondly it raised a question mark over the future of the series. Whereas in public some officials say that they accept recession and fear of swine flu were the decisive influences in Australia not wanting to travel in private others are shocked at the discourtesy and are pessimistic about the series surviving.

A year ago 42,823 turned up at the MCG for the second Test and the crowd was dwarfed by the vastness of the redeveloped stadium and its 110,000 capacity. The 2008 attendance aggregate was the lowest in Australia since the series revived in 1998.

The underlying problem is a game that was once well contested has had to be frequently amended to keep Ireland competitive and softened beyond the Australian taste because of an inability, largely on the AFL’s part, to play with controlled and disciplined physicality.

We might just have to get used to uneventful autumns.

smoran@irishtimes.ie