Contributed by: Brett Northey
The second International Rules Test of 2006 has highlighted problems with the series like no other match between the two proud sporting nations. The rancor expressed by both sides has been unprecedented, and it is difficult to reconcile that respected voices from both camps, and indeed their supporters, can view the same incidents with such extremely opposing views.
As discussed in our recent story, the two major incidents, one of which injured Ireland's Graham Geraghty and which have had the Irish media exclaiming the loudest, are not considered unfair in Australian circles. On the other hand, allegations by the Aussies that they received headbutts and knees from their opponents are seen as much more serious offences Down Under - some of these actions were caught on video and in the AFL would've attracted long suspensions. However pre-game niggling is also seen as a legitimate tactic in Australia to distract an opponent, whereas the Irish reacted with venom. There is no question there is a major clash of sporting cultures occurring. The solution is not clear - some labelled the first Test as lacking in passion (including some parts of the Irish media), but when passion returns and the game quickens, physical clashes will occur as bodies fight for the ball. If bumps and tackles remain part of the game the Irish will always come off second best, but if they are removed from the sport, as previously noted, there is little left in the concept to interest Australian Football fans.
To satisfy both countries it seems that very clear rules and interpretations are required. More umpires scrutinising players around the field is also needed, but increases the number of potential interpretations. Independent umpires would be the answer, but with no other countries playing the sport at a high level, there is unlikely to be suitable candidates. Amongst other nations playing Gaelic or Australian Football at lower levels, any possible umpires would probably be seen as aligned with either Ireland or Australia, depending on the sport they come from. An improved tribunal system is also vital. Players from both sides know they can throw punches with no penalty other than suspension from future IR matches. However, if the suspensions also applied to their home competitions, clubs would be very reluctant to let their players participate - no doubt Carlton regret Fevola travelling, after having invested so much in the player only to have that jeopardised by his off-field indiscretion. It may well have been his own fault, but the Blues would see it as something that wouldn't have happened if they had blocked him from going. The tribunal also appears flawed due to parochial influences. Much of the hype relating to Australia seeking revenge on Graham Geraghty would have been defused if he had been suspended. I would like to think I watch these matches impartially, but the incident in which he was reported appeared particularly distasteful. Before he had been cited I had reviewed it several times for my own interest and had concluded that he had deliberately kneed Lindsay Gilbee in the head. It seemed he should be reported, as duly happened. For this charge to be ridiculed before the hearing then thrown out must have caused anger in the Australian camp - the use of kicks or knees infuriates most Australian Footballers.
I hope this article does not read as a biased defence of Australian tactics. As stated earlier, respected voices from both sides see the events very differently. But I do not subscribe to the extreme version that Ireland are purely an innocent victim. It is an easy conclusion to jump to given that their players are not professionals, are lighter, and come from a sporting culture that abhors violence. National passions need to be moderated by a scrutiny of the matches and an understanding of the respective cultures. The Irish respond to niggles, the Australians react to such responses. When a fight breaks out the Irish give the appearance of fighting for their lives whereas the Australians are understandably more assured and selective, in general. But it is very much Aussie culture to stick up for one's team-mates, as Barry Hall was quick to do when fellow Swan Ryan O'Keefe was receiving blows.
It has also been interesting to read the message board of the Irish Gaelic sports news site Hogan Stand, in which many Irish contributors concede their team was as much to blame as the Aussies, despite what the one-sided headlines across Ireland proclaimed. One thing is universal - no one can agree whether the tackle on Geraghty was an act of thuggery or only a slight indiscretion in that it was held slightly too long - an easy mistake made every week in Australian Football. Irish commentator Ger Canning, speaking on the coverage sent back to Australia, initially described the tackle as a "good challenge". When both commentators reviewed the video they suggested the tackle had lingered too long and a free kick should have been paid - nothing worse. It is very difficult to make a case that Australia's smallest player had noted who he was tackling and therefore slung him harder intending to injure him. The resultant injury said much more about Geraghty's lack of experience at bracing for impact and the nature of bad luck in sport. Reports of his tearful wife and children were frankly a hysterical reaction irrelevant to the series.
In 2005 it was also noticeable that both sides would go on with tackles after the ball had gone. There is a fundamental mismatch in size and a resulting natural tendency for the Australians to wish to use this to advantage and for the Irish to over-compensate to be seen to be standing up for themselves, but at times this is actually starting incidents where there had been no malice intended. It is probably impossible to reduce the apportioning of blame to just a number, but if I was to do so based on the two series of 2005/06, I would suggest it is around 30% the Australians, 20% the Irish, and 50% the mismatch of physiques and unclear rule interpretations. I have deliberately discounted the Chris Johnson "coat-hanger" tackle incident last year, in which in 30 seconds of madness his actions did damage to the series that is still being felt.
Other points of dispute included Australia's first goal being allowed when a fight had started. This is again a clear case of two sports clashing. In Aussie Rules, if a fight breaks out, the umpires are directed to continue the match so the players will be drawn to the contest not the fight. Perhaps this is different in Gaelic football - but does anyone know what the rule is in International Rules? Yet the Australian umpire was villified for this. And although I've agreed here that violence is not part of the Irish sporting culture, it should be noted that a quick scan through some of their news sites revealed that there have been many fights including all in brawls this season - so perhaps the claims of purity are a touch overstated. To that quick search I might add that when in Ireland I was keen to see a Gaelic match and when wandering through the town of Sligo stopped off at a local field - just in time to see the match end with a brawl. Maybe some of the outrage now in the Irish press is designed to mask that once the violence had settled the Irish were completely outplayed to the point that there were suggestions that the Australians looked far more skillful. This could be attributed to the locals being unnerved by the first quarter, but it seems an indequate excuse for the country's best players of what is still a physical and passionate game.
Will the series go on? In a strange paradox, matches continue to draw big crowds yet ask amongst Australian Football fans whether they actually watch the matches, and many will profess to not even knowing they had been telecast. A straw poll amongst acquaintances known to be footy fans revealed that not a single supporter had watched or recorded the early morning telecast - many didn't even know the result 24 hours later. Perhaps this is partially a South Australian phenomena, since the series has bypassed Adelaide in recent years, being staged in Melbourne and Perth when in Australia.
The IR series are filled with paradoxes and Catch 22 situations for GAA and AFL officials. The bad blood that now exists is ironic in that the series is partially due to the greater knowledge and respect for each others' codes when compared with the low visibility the sports have in other countries. It seems that International Rules is now under serious threat. For many the jury is still out as to whether the concept aids either Gaelic or Australian Football, so there is a degree of apathy towards the final outcome. But as long as numbers come through the gates, it seems the AFL and GAA will try to keep the series alive. Reports suggest the short term future of the series will be decided very early in 2007. After the initial furore in Ireland, the tide has already started to turn, with a poll of Ireland's players by the Irish Independent finding that most would like to see the series continue.
What if it is cancelled? Will it ultimately reduce support for the respective codes, given that children will know they have no pathway to represent their country? Perhaps. It is a very difficult outcome to measure. Will it result in the AFL focusing more attention on development of international Australian Football markets? Perhaps, but this is not clear - it could be a negative as Australians look inwards. Will it increase the chances of a return of State of Origin matches? Probably, and this is an exciting prospect for many, but will appear as a tiresome dead concept from the past to others. Only time will tell, but if the series was cancelled, one could except an increase in the rate of AFL recruitment from GAA player ranks as presumably the GAA-AFL anti-poaching rules would be scrapped. My gut feeling is that the 2007 matches will go ahead as a "last chance" for both sides to prove they want to play and can do so with an exciting intensity but without the violence or injury. Whether the two sports really can be melded together when the heat is really on remains to be seen.
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