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GAA debates International Rules, AFL recruiting, and own international dimension

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International Rules

The GAA community in Ireland, a far from small slice of the Irish population, continues to be abuzz with debate about the International Rules Series, months after the losses to Australia in Perth and Melbourne. A high level meeting between the GAA and the AFL is scheduled for January. This article highlights some of the issues, plus Gaelic football's own embryonic international expansion.

Irish concern with on-field violence and off-field recruiting.

In the wake of the on-field violence in the Second Test in Melbourne, there have been loud calls amongst some in the GAA and Irish media to abandon the International Rules Series. County Offaly chairman, John Power, was quoted on Hoganstand.com as saying: “The thuggery displayed by the Australians in the second game has no place on any playing field.” And his county passed a motion to scrap the International Rules series, that will be put to the Central Council of the GAA.

There has already been changes to the rules, with red card violations meaning a player cannot be replaced for 20 minutes plus an automatic penalty shot on goal for the team offended against. If those sanctions had been in place last October it is very debatable whether Johnson and a couple of his teammates would've acted as they did (see Johnson apologises but banned for 5).

The other bone of contention is the continued drafting of Gaelic footballers (and hurlers in the case of Setanta O'hAilpin) to AFL clubs. Some in the GAA are far from happy with recruiting clinics like the recent one run by the Brisbane Lions, that took two talented young County Laois players, Colm Begley and Brendan Quigley to their rookie list. Again according to hoganstand.com, the GAA plans to put a proposal to the AFL that Gaelic footballers not be recruited to rookie lists, but only to senior AFL lists. This would mean taking more established Gaelic footballers and diminish the sense in Ireland of the talented next generation being taken. Then again others in the Irish media have pointed out that many more players are lost to Soccer and Rugby than to Aussie Rules and a player should be free to play whatever game he likes. Colm Begley said on the GAA site "They may come looking for more players but whether they get them or not is another matter. To be honest it’s been blown out of proportion a bit".

Gaelic football moves beyond its own roots

Some have called for the GAA to concentrate on internationalising their own games. Gaelic Football is, like Australian Rules, still primarily an indigenous sporting code. It is the most popular sport of Ireland in both player and spectator numbers. As a round ball code on a rectangular pitch with a recognisable goal net - Gaelic football potentially has advantages over Aussie Rules in becoming an international sport, with the millions who play the "World Game" of soccer able to transfer fairly easily, especially if they have some experience of that other world game, basketball. But the GAA's main raison d'etre since 1884 has been to promote Irish culture first and foremost. It has not been an expansionary code at all. That has started to change:

  • The expat teams and leagues around the world increasingly include non-Irish. As readers of WFN would know these teams often collaborate with Aussie Rules teams in their area, both in International Rules matches and in player and venue exchanges.
  • The GAA in Birmingham, England, have had a push into local schools for the past few years, and by 2004 had 4,000 participating players in 80 primary schools playing Gaelic football and Hurling. The great growth in Birmingham is in part due to a full time development officer.
  • Illustrating the tremendous growth of Gaelic footy in the English midlands, a Birmingham school, Bishop Challoner school, sent their senior school Gaelic football team to play an International Rules match against a Melbourne school as curtain-raiser to the IR Test at the Telstra Dome, they then went to Qld and played Gaelic Football against the Qld under-18 Gaelic football side.
  • Smaller pushes into junior development are occuring in Scotland, the north of England, London, across the USA, and in the Barcelona region of Spain.
  • 50 of the attendees at the GAA's annual coaching conference in 2005 came from continental Europe, where the league is based upon Irish expats, but the GAA has now produced multilingual coaching manuals with the aim to get Gaelic Games onto school sports curricula.
  • The Asian Gaelic Games are an annual tournament again of Irish expats but with growth in numbers and skill level annually and in 2005 came to mainland China in Shanghai. Reports in Chinese media quoted local Chinese players lauding the sport over that of soccer and some GAA officials talking up expansion into local Asian communities.
  • Back in Ireland, particularly in the troubled north, there has been talk and experience of broadening Gaelic Games to the unionist communities, with Pat Darcy, the chairman of the All Ireland Champions, county Tyrone, calling on this plus inclusion of Ireland's growing multiethnic immigrant community.
  • Mickey Harte, coach of the 2005 All Ireland Football champions county Tyrone, has called for a Gaelic Football World Cup to replace the International Rules series - story from Gaelsport.

Then again the most conservative elements in the GAA dislike the idea of both International Rules and international Gaelic Games and would like to keep the games Irish. But powerful voices within the GAA are highly in favour of the International Rules Series. GAA president Sean Kelly has been warm in his praise of junior development in America and the growth in Europe and Asia, as well as valuing the links with the AFL. Kelly has spoken of the many administrative and media tips, plus some referreeing changes the GAA have benefited from through collaboration with the AFL. He also likes to see the GAA thrive in Nth America and may have views about International Rules having a place in this (see "Inter-Rules" - The Future?).

Ed: It is also interesting to note that something that makes Irish players more vulnerable to being "poached" by AFL clubs is the amateur status of the game there. However, pressure is increasing to change that. See Cusack in call for semi-pro GAA.

Views of Irish International Rules players

Pat Daly, the GAA's Head of Games, says with regards to International Rules, the players should decide, he went on to say:

    "I believe the players would find it inconceivable that their one meaningful opportunity to play for their country is taken away from them just as Croke Park is opened up to other international sports. (Rugby and possibly Soccer will be played at the hallowed GAA ground during the redevelopment of Dublin's Lansdowne Road stadium) I talked to the players and sure they all said that the disciplinary matters had to be tightened up but they wanted the series to continue."

Sean Og O'hAilpin, captain of reigning back to back Hurling Champions, County Cork, Irish International Rules player and elder brother to Carlton duo Setanta and Aisake O'hAilpin, probably voiced the opinion of the players: wanting the series to continue but also wanting clarity in rules interpretation. He is quoted on a hoganstand.com article of 21st December as saying: "I think the Australians need to be spoken about in terms of interpretation of the rules, their interpretation seems to be way different to ours, not within International Rules." On that note it is likely Kevin Sheedy and his players would like the Irish players to watch the lower leg contact, as Sheedy hinted that this riled the Aussie players, tripping or a boot to the shins being perhaps a greater sin in Aussie Rules than in Gaelic football.

Gaelic Legend says abandoning International Rules would be a mistake

In this context Ireland's probably greatest current player, Peter Canavan of County Tyrone, wrote in defence of the International Rules series, in a pre-Xmas feature story for hoganstand.com. Canavan is a living legend of Gaelic Football - 6 time All Star, with two All Ireland championship medals, a teacher who had former students alongside him for Tyrone until his retirement after winning the 2005 All Ireland Championship in which he scored the crucial winning point in a nail-biter semi-final against Armagh and Tyrone's only goal in their 1-16 to 2-10 defeat of Kerry in the final. He is best known to Australian Football fans as the little bald guy with incredible scoring ability - 37 points in 5 Tests from 1998 to 2000 finishing with his fiery tussle at Croke Park with Jason Akermanis that saw both players suspended.

The full article is very worth reading (here), but in particular he says:

    "In the aftermath of the second match, the cries for the abolition of the International Rules Series have never been louder. I think we must learn from it, but to actually abandon the series would be a mistake. Gaelic footballers are no different than sportsmen in any other code – they strive to represent their country and view the donning of an Irish jersey as a major honour. It is unfortunate that we cannot represent our country playing our own game – Gaelic football. If we did, the games against other nations would be too one-sided and reduce it to a shambles. The games against Australia, while not exactly Gaelic are close to it. On top of that taking on and defeating these professional sportsmen demands great speed, skill and determination. Anyone who has tasted success over the Aussies has been imbued with immense satisfaction and pride."

Readers of WFN would note there've been dozens of International Rules matches at more than 2 dozen venues around the world between the grass-roots teams of both codes, none as far as reported with any unseemly rough or malicious play. (Ed. In general that is true, although I do recall a few reports of Aussies pushing the boundaries on occasion.) In the distant future it may be possible for Ireland or Australia to take on international competition in Gaelic or Australian Football, but for a long time yet they can only take each other on at the highest level in International Rules. For this reason, lets hope the coming year's series is full of speed, skill and determination but great sportsmanship too.