The ’Rules series is fighting for survival

The inter-county playing season may have gone into hibernation but GAA matters continue to grab the headlines.

The inter-county playing season may have gone into hibernation but GAA matters continue to grab the headlines.

The Australians have come and gone and, knowing how these proud people love their sport, it was no surprise that the reaction Down Under to their heavy defeat against Ireland in the recent International Rules Series was one of huge embarrassment.

There will be a series in Australia next year but that may be the end of it. Like with the inter-provincial series, interest in the Compromise Game has fallen away, but, it is still seen by the players as a big honour to represent their country.

I was bemused after the most recent series to hear that the game needed more physicality to maintain the interest of spectators.

Readers will recall the outrageous behaviour of the Australians in the second test in Croke Park some years ago. The Irish players, it has to be said, became involved in some unsavoury incidents that day also.

President’s reaction

The series looked doomed after that game and I well recall the reaction of many prominent people at the post match reception. The Australian officials clearly knew that a challenge lay ahead to save the series.

Neither the Irish nor the Australians could contemplate a return series in Australia the following year. It looked as if the series had finally run aground. I was President at that time and I had no appetite to see the series resumed either.

However, my views changed when a number of Irish players expressed a strong interest in seeing the compromise game revived.

Despite the disappointing events in Croke Park, the opportunity to wear an Irish jersey and play with people who were opponents throughout the year was still a big issue for the Irish players. Thus began a series of what might be called diplomatic negotiations between the GAA and the AFL. It started with an initial meeting in Paris with the CEO of the AFL (he was in Europe on other business at the time).

We set out a clear template for a resumption of the series with a strong emphasis on revising the rules. A subsequent meeting in Dubai (the AFL were hosting a major pre-season game there) saw a revised set of rules agreed between the parties.

When the next series took place in Australia in 2008 it did look as if the new formula was a success. That series was hugely exciting with big crowds attending in Perth and Melbourne. I found it a great honour to be part of an Irish group which won the series in the famous MCG Stadium in Melbourne. That is one of the most iconic stadia in the world with a capacity of over 100,000.

The problem now is that the Australians are not picking their best players. Also, the physique, fitness, stamina and skill of the Irish players have improved to an incredibly high level.

The decision, however well intended, to field an all-Australian indigenous team backfired. In truth the players were overrun. From an Australian perspective it was embarrassing.

The series is important to the AFL as it gives their sport an international dimension. I know they look enviously at their rugby union, rugby league, soccer and cricket counterparts who enjoy a significant international profile.

Despite this craving for an international dimension the AFL seems unable to convince its clubs and especially its top players to compete in the international rules series.

The future of the series will ultimately rest on what happens in Australia next year. The Irish will prepare as professionally as they have always done and particularly for the last three series.

The ball is now in the Australian’s court. Unless they field a much better side than we have seen during the last two series it is hard to see how the GAA can continue to support a game that still has plenty of detractors here.

The one downside from an Irish perspective is that some players have to opt out due to club commitments. I understand the dilemma of club fixture makers, but greater flexibility could have been shown in the case of some players.