Sunday, March 19 2006 @ 03:27 PM CST
Contributed by: Peter Parry
Last weekend the 2004 and 2005 All Star Ladies Gaelic football teams of Ireland travelled to Singapore, where hosted by the Singapore Lions Gaelic football club they played an exhibition game and ran schools coaching clinics. They also met with officials of the AFL/Women’s AFL and agreed to an inaugural International Rules Series between Australia and Ireland to occur soon after the men’s series there this October. Two Tests will be played - one at Parnell Park (the GAA’s second ground in Dublin after Croke Park) on October 31st and the other to be in either Cork or Galway on 4th November. Both will be under lights and televised at least within Ireland.
At time of writing the only media report confirming the event is from Ireland Online though the possibility was a feature story on the GAA website recently. WFN reported on this very possibility a couple of years ago.
People outside Ireland probably cannot comprehend the level of commitment and coverage women’s Gaelic football now has within the Emerald Isle. Despite women’s Soccer’s success around the globe and female sports like netball and women’s basketball having good followings, probably nowhere is there such a level of passion for a women’s sport than for “Ladies Football” in Ireland.
The Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) was formed in 1884 to foster the continuation and growth of Irish indigenous games of Gaelic Football and Hurling as well as Irish language, music and dance. Hurling has a history stretching back 2 millenia and to it was added Camogie - Women’s Hurling. But whilst Irish women could have their own form of Hurling, weilding ashwood blades around head high, football was paradoxically considered not a ladies game. It was only in the late 1960’s with women’s lib in the air that some Irish women decided to get out on a pitch and kick and catch the Gaelic football. The game caught on and was formally accepted by the GAA in 1974. Since then it has been the most rapidly growing of the Gaelic Games. Crowds of 20,000 to 40,000 attend the All Ireland Ladies Football Finals and last year 531,000 watched on TV (out of Ireland’s total north and south population of under 5.5 million). Currently over 100,000 women and girls play the game, the game is hugely popular in schools and the figure is estimated to grow to 150,000 within 3 years. Even the arrival of Women’s Soccer has not dented the numbers playing Gaelic football, and in fact several of the Irish national womens’ soccer team also represent their counties in Gaelic football - a move made easier by the amateur status of both sports in Ireland.
But it is not just in Ireland where Women’s Gaelic footy is doing well. In Australia, NZ, Nth America, Britain, Europe and Asia where GAA clubs have sprouted it seems women’s teams often attract more participants than men’s. Partly because the men’s game competes with other established football codes, but it is perhaps related to many women (some in Australia say so anyway) like to bring their netball/basketball/volleyball skills to a football game on grass, and in that sense find the game compares favourably to soccer.
It is noteworthy that attempts at setting up a men’s Gaelic football World Cup have failed to progress beyond a tournament in 2000, whereas the women’s Gaelic football World Cup (Ireland does not compete) has continued in 2002 and 2005. The Australasian Women’s Gaelic football team have won all 3 World Cups, they have also defeated a range of Irish women’s teams including highly fancied Irish Defence Forces and some top Dublin club sides in warm up matches. In fact the Gaelic Football & Hurling Association of Australasia would like to enter a team in the Irish Ladies Football All Ireland Championship in future, which is possible with the knockout formula that for the Men’s allows teams from New York and London to compete. Whether the International Rules agreement will aid or hinder that aim is yet to be seen.
The Ladies All Star tour to Singapore is the second All Star tour abroad, following one to New York in 2003 and follows a successful Men’s Gaelic Football tour to Singapore in January this year where 3,000 watched the match. The women are very keen to bring locals to the sport and will run coaching clinics in Singaporean schools.
Compared to Women’s Gaelic Football, Women’s Australian Rules Football has some catching up to do. But that is happening with solid growth in numbers of girls and women tackling each other for the chance to score 6 point goals. Women’s Footy is strongest in Victoria and Queensland including the far north. There are leagues in Western Australia, Sydney, the Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory and South Australia, with national carnivals and the selection of an All Australian team. The game is also catching on in the Australian Defence Force.
There is signs of big growth in junior numbers happening through development of girls schools competitions in Victoria with Football Victoria winning the state’s junior sport award recently for the success and merits of this very program. The success of Auskick programs, where girls form an increasing percentage of participants, across Australia plus the introduction of social non-contact female friendly Recreational Footy also bodes well for female participation rates in Australian Football. The Auskick site talks of the growth of the game amongst girls and women in Sydney.
Still, women’s footy in Australia lags behind Ireland in participation rates by a fair way at present. Thus it will be very interesting to see how Australia fares against Ireland in October/November. A number of the women who play and represent Australia in Gaelic Football also play Aussie Rules. At the time of writing it is unclear whether Australia will pick a team from just the Women’s All Australian (Women’s AFL) team or would consider opening it to players from the Gaelic All Australian side that has won 3 Gaelic World Cups (albeit against non-Irish sides) in Dublin. To open it up to the best of both codes would follow at least in principal Kevin Sheedy’s move to select players suited to the hybrid and not base the team on the AFL All Australian team. As reported by WFN in 2004 the Women’s International Rules match in Sydney between the Sydney GAA girls and Sydney Women’s AFL team was well contested. A warm-up match or two between the two respective All-Australian sides in International Rules would give whoever goes over a better chance of taking it up to the experienced Sineads, Colleens and Eileens etc.
It is also unclear if there will be any modifications in rules from Men’s International Rules, as Women’s Gaelic football has even less body contact than men’s Gaelic footy. WFN will seek to report developments as they become clearer.
As for the title of this piece - no aspertions cast at all, the Irish call their footballers Ladies, the Aussies refer to themselves as Women footballers. The only female International Rules game so far played to WFN's knowledge - the Sydney match - was reportedly played in the best of spirit and no doubt that will always be the way.