Contributed by: Peter Parry
AFL and GAA chiefs met in Melbourne last week to discuss terms for continuation of the International Rules series, with calls in the Irish media to scrap the series due to what has been labelled 'thuggery' on the part of the Australians. An agreement between the two leagues will see much harsher penalties for on-field violence in future, plus possible changes to the way AFL clubs can recruit young Irishmen.
Last week a delegation of GAA officials met for 2 days with the AFL in Melbourne. The GAA officials, including president Sean Kelly, had come down from Singapore where they'd been viewing the Hurling All-Stars exhibition game. The GAA annually sends its best Gaelic Football and Hurling "All-Star" (similar to All-Australian in AFL) teams to international destinations as a reward to the amateur players and to provide an exhibition match for Irish expats and curious locals.
Gaelic Games are currently experiencing an upsurge in popularity in Ireland (read story in Irish Independent here) and Martin Breheny also writing in the Irish Independent from Singapore (read here), called for the GAA to tap into the global demand for TV sport by internationalising at least the coverage of Gaelic Games. He noted: "There was quite a turn-out of local Singapore people at last Saturday's All Star exhibition at the Polo Grounds and judging by the reaction they were absolutely fascinated by the skill, dexterity and sheer athleticism of the players."
The GAA officials who came on to Melbourne were under intense pressure from back home in Ireland to clean up the foul play in the International Rules series. There had been calls to abandon the series after last year's rough play in the second Test in Melbourne. However, a survey of Gaelic footballers had been strongly supportive of the continuation of the hybrid Test series as long as there were more disciplinary disincentives to undue rough play.
To illustrate the feeling in Ireland the GAA presented the AFL with press clippings that had continued for months in the Irish press damning the Aussie roughhouse tactics. They could well have presented the Irish Independent for the day of the meeting where one writer said the AFL should've come to Dublin or Singapore as "Australia were by far the more serious aggressors so instead of the GAA heading down to meet them like obedient boys, they should have told the AFL representatives to travel to Singapore, host city for this year's Vodafone All-Star hurling tour. Or failing that, invite them to Dublin and ask for a formal apology for last year's thuggery."
At the subsequent press conference (see AFL story Zero Tolerance for IR misconduct) one has to wonder if there was a bit of a Freudian slip in AFL president, Andrew Demetriou's, comment that there had been "heated agreement" between the two parties? Nonetheless he went on to say the AFL and GAA were "as one" in their desire to make sure the series was played in the best spirit. Demetriou (in AFL story Future assured for IR series) spoke of the incredible evenness of the competition between Ireland and Australia over the years, and said: "We don't subscribe to the theory that because we had success in last year's series that we are streaks ahead of the Irish in this game. In fact, it's been proven that the team that loses often comes back after revisiting their strategy and team selection. We've got no doubt the Irish will bounce back in the coming series." Demetriou used statistics to highlight the evenness of the series since it was reintroduced in 1998 - 16 tests, Australia (seven wins), Ireland (seven) and two draws. Overall, Ireland has scored 910 points and Australia 903 points. He also pointed to the crowds, which average 47,000. TV ratings have been very good too.
The AFL president said the future of the series was not in doubt and agreement was present for the next 10 years. However GAA president, Sean Kelly, whilst speaking optimistically about the future of the series, could not be so unequivocal with outstanding motions before GAA Congress to abandon the series or move it to a biennial format (see GAA article Series may go to biennial)
The new protocols (see AFL and GAA agree on IR protocols) for foul play went beyond what were previously canvassed. A yellow card offence will see a player sin-binned for 15 minutes but replaced, a red card or 2 yellow cards will see the player off for the entire rest of the match without replacement and a penalty shot on goal given to the opposition. In a fast free flowing game the loose player could be a very decisive factor, and the new rules should act as a suitable deterrant.
As Kelly said: "To have proper discipline, you must have proper deterrents and it's quite obvious to everybody that we didn't have proper deterrents until now, but I think this will go a long way to stemming it." The rules will need to. Many in Ireland, whilst still likely a minority including traditionalists that just don't like the idea of a hybrid game, will exert intense pressure to abandon the series if the football is not clean.
The GAA president and his group also raised the vexed issue of AFL clubs recruiting teenage Irish players to rookie lists. The Age reports on the AFL curtailing Irish recruits and the GAA website gave this story prominence.
Whilst a great adventure especially for successful players like Stynes, Kennelly, White, and probably the Setanta brothers, it is probably not known to many AFL fans that there are other young Irish Gaelic footballers who come over for a year or less and do not make the grade. Kelly referred to this in an article on hoganstand.com ( when he said: "A lot of people have been concerned particularly after a coaching session was held last year in Ireland and a number of players were offered contracts here....Players that are 17 or 18 shouldn’t be uprooted from their families and brought so far away - in so many cases they’re coming back very soon after the upheaval." Demetriou has said the AFL will look at this and a minimum age for Irish GAA players to be recruited by AFL clubs is likely to be set.
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