Despite controversy over the previous Test Series, International Rules still has a place in the sporting calendar, according to Fearghal Kerin.
The return of the International Rules Series between the Gaelic Footballers of Ireland and their Australian Rules counterparts is being heralded in many quarters as a major mistake and an accident waiting to happen.
The view of many, in the wake of the distressing scenes two years ago when the Australians manhandled their opponents in a crushing defeat, is that the Series has had its time and that it is no longer viable in the modern game.
Several tackles and hits from 2006 live long in memory, amongst them the brawl before the throw in of the second test. However, few incidents were as bloodcurdling as the vitriolic tackle on Meath star, Graham Geraghty, who was seemingly deliberately injured by the Australians in the opening minutes of the second test in an apparent act of vengeance for comments Geraghty had made in the media.
The Ulster representatives are traditionally physically larger, stronger and more able for the competitive tackling of the Aussies
Led by former Meath manager, Seán Boylan, there is no shortage of experience and ingenuity in the Irish management. The phrase “the old dog for the hard road” immediately springs to mind when considering his coronation as manager. Boylan has always been one of the sport’s advocates, speaking out on its merits in the face of those that have constantly slated it as an outdated, impractical concept.
Many county managers, including Tyrone’s All-Ireland-winning Mickey Harte, are amongst the biggest critics, though some cynics would claim that intercounty managers are afraid of the developing trend of young Irish footballers being poached by Australian scouts and signed to Aussie Rules teams.
Some of Ireland’s most talented wonderkids, including Setanta and Aiseke Ó Hailpín as well as would-be Laois star Colm Begley, have successfully tried their luck in the professional game and many others are following their lead as their success gains the sport further publicity on these shores.
The Irish squad is stronger than in recent years too, with Boylan perhaps having taken into account the mistakes of recent years. Predictably, a large portion of the players come from All Ireland Champions, Tyrone, with Armagh too well represented. The Ulster representatives are traditionally physically larger, stronger and more able for the competitive tackling of the Aussies, with theirs a sport intrinsically based on hard hits.
The Irish desire to compete with this has been underlined by the selection of the Irish backroom staff. Amongst them is Irish rugby international, Trevor Brennan.
The former Toulouse utility forward, popularly dubbed the Barnhall Bruiser for his competitive style, was recruited to impress upon the players some of the intricacies of the tackle, a concept foreign to those versed only in Gaelic football.
It was Ireland’s weakness in this that was exploited so ruthlessly at Croke Park two years ago, and is clearly being addressed ahead of next week’s tests.
Few incidents were as bloodcurdling as the vitriolic tackle on Meath star Graham Geraghty
Despite the poor reputation and criticism the sport has received over recent years however, you will hear very few of the Irish players themselves coming out against the concept itself, despite the obvious concerns over safety.
For the Irish players, this is an opportunity to live as professional sportsmen, something the vast majority would never get to experience otherwise. Living for several weeks in Australia, staying in top class hotels and playing in front of sold-out crowds in some of the world of sport’s best stadiums is not something that amateur sportsmen normally get to achieve, and therein, from some Gaelic footballers’ perspective lies part of the attraction of the Rules Series.
Even for those representing Ireland from counties such as Wicklow and Fermanagh, counties that don’t usually get the chance to play at Croke Park, will see this as a very rare opportunity to reach the highest level they can.
Unlike, for instance, the English national soccer team who are consistently dogged by criticisms of the players that club success is more important to them than international recognition, the players from the traditionally weaker counties would never get a chance to compete like this were it not for the rules.
Players like Offaly’s Cíarán McManus, a mainstay of the Irish side, the strongest in his county and a player that could make it with any other side, yet he is crippled by the perennial failures of his side. However with the Rules, he can be the star of the biggest show of them all.
This is why the International Rules still has a place in the Gaelic Athletic Association’s biannual calendar.
All going well, the reputation of the Cormac McAnallen Cup will be restored, but nobody can predict the ferocity of the Australians and whether the thuggish antics of two years ago will once more leave the amateur Gaels bemoaning the chasm in physicality between them and the professionals, and the future of the series again in great jeopardy. A repeat of 2006 will surely result in this being the final International Rules Series for a long time.