International Rules at the crossroads

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With the latest set of International Rules tests between Ireland and Australia now in full swing, many people are wondering whether or not the compromise rules concept has a viable future.

Given its former reputation of being a hard-hitting and fiercely-contested battle between two proud sporting cultures, the appetite for future installments of the hybrid game between Gaelic and Australian rules football appears to be waning.

Growing Apathy

Although Ireland’s 57-35 victory over the Australian select was regarded as an enthralling spectacle by some, there appears to be a growing apathy amongst the sporting public in both countries which is beginning to be reflected in the attitude of the associations involved.

By and large the mass brawls of earlier years have been confined to the history books (Photo credit Jimmy Harris on Flickr)
By and large the mass brawls of earlier years have been confined to the history books (Photo credit Jimmy Harris on Flickr)

Australia caused controversy this year with the announcement of an all-indigenous selection for the first time in series history. Labelled by some as ‘reverse racism’, the Australian Football League wanted to honour the contribution of Aboriginal players to the country’s national sport, and picked what they believed to be a more agile and skilful selection in the process.

However, despite the best intentions in the world, the fact remains that not one member of Australia’s 33-man panel was part of this year’s All-Australian team lineup. Ireland, in stark contrast, had five members of last year’s equivalent All-Star side included in the home squad, with many more set to be named in the 2013 selection later this month.

Declining player standards on one side at least has led to a predictable fall-off in support.

From capacity crowds in both countries during the series’ reinstatement during the late ’90s and early 2000s, the average attendance figure of just 17’000 recorded during the 2011 test series in Australia was compounded by the sight of a half-full Breffni Park for Ireland’s victory at the weekend.

Attendances for the rules matches have been dwindling Down Under (Photo credit Michael Spencer on Flickr)
Attendances for the rules matches have been dwindling Down Under (Photo credit Michael Spencer on Flickr)

Indicative of this decline was the Australian media’s complete lack of interest in the event. With not one major national broadcaster providing coverage of this latest series, the press Down Under generally seems to have gotten fed up with the sanitised version of what was once regarded as all-out warfare with a ball (merely incidental, of course) involved.

Hope Remains

However far it’s fallen from grace, the International Rules series does still retain some of its merits.

From what started as a tenuous association during the two sports at the time of the series’ inauguration in 1984, relations have blossomed between the AFL and GAA in recent times, with intercounty luminaries such as Jim Stynes, Tadhg Kennelly and Marty Clarke swapping the round ball for an oval version in their quest to make it big in the Aussies’ premier indigenous sport.

With many school and college teams from both codes now traipsing around the planet to test their skills against their compromise rules counterparts, it’s also initiated a valuable cultural exchange between the young peoples of two countries with a lot in common.

But the fact remains that at its highest level, the series is plagued by a diverse set of problems. Speaking in Melbourne in 2011, GAA Árd Stiúrthór Páraic Duffy stated that unless series interest and attendances picked up in Australia, the Irish audience wouldn’t maintain a reciprocal interest.

It appears that, following a sad and gradual decline, we’ve finally reached that crossroads. It’s now down to the GAA and AFL to pull their formerly proud combined sporting tradition back from the brink, or risk losing it forever.

(Featured image credit Michael Spencer on Flickr)





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