UGLY SPECTACLE Australia’s Ryan Crowley tussles with Ireland’s Sean Cavanagh during the Coca-Cola International Rules Series 2006.
Time to tackle hybrid game
DESPITE the wishes of most officials around the country and some players, the International Rules series has not yet been buried. They have left it slumber for a while, waiting till the memory of that Croke Park outrage calms down, waiting to dress it up in new clothes, to breathe new life into it and put it back on exhibition in the hope that it can become a more refined and attractive hybrid.
But they’ll find, whenever it is revived, and however well ‘dickied up’, the same old entity, still riddled with the same old faults and peppered with the same unrestrained violent behaviour. The Australians will be content with nothing less than an open demonstration of their superior muscle power.
In the meantime the GAA are to call for essential changes to the rules in any talks that might take place with the Australian Football League. Without the agreement of the AFL to a major change in emphasis and approach there will be no resumption of the test matches, they say.
New proposals to deal with the thorniest aspects of the game are to be drawn up by GAA officials and placed before Central Council and, if accepted, forwarded to the AFL for their consideration.
The tackle is one of the flash points of the rules. More than any other it gives rise to outbreaks of anger and hostility among opposing players. How the planners intend to deal with that aspect of the game may in the end determine the fate of the International series . . . if not summarily, then by gradual suffocation.
The Australians seem to have a revision of that rule in mind if reported statements made by some of their officials following the Croke Park rumpus, are correct. Chief executive of the AFL Andrew Demetriou has stated that his organisation would give serious consideration to sacrificing the tackle in order to save the series.
The problem lies in what he regards as the different cultures of the two sides, how each interprets the tackle. “Tackling our way is anathema to the Irish and that’s part of the problem and almost a catalyst for some of the things that happened. We’ve all got to work together to find ways to continue the series.”
But in diluting the tackle - and any revision of that rule can only result in some anaemic substitute - the game as a spectacle is itself likely to suffer, to be less competitive, less intense. Their meeting in Galway is a case in point. The performance of the Australian players in that test was the antithesis of their conduct on their own ground the previous year when they flayed all round them and brought the series into disrepute. There was no fire in their bellies, no raging fervour.
That performance, in Galway, drew the wrath of commentators far and wide. The Australians were slammed for their lack of passion, for their indifference, for their failure to play with their customary abrasiveness. In front of a sellout audience in Pearse Stadium they were a poor reflection of the hardman image portrayed in other clashes.
In the days leading up to the rematch in Croke Park their courage and tough-guy image was brought into question in the national press, and a squad steeped in a culture of physical narcissism was enraged.
Whatever their frame of mind in Galway, by the time they stepped onto Croke Park the following Sunday their intentions had been well flagged. No provocation was necessary from the Irish players. Before a ball was kicked they set about settling a few scores. Stung by the censure of some writers, the visitors unleashed their savagery as the President of this country looked on. They won the battle on and off the field, but there was no honour in either. Nor was there much credit attached to the pre-match criticism of some reporters.
Mortified and angry, GAA President Nicky Brennan, called for an end to the games. He has since rowed back a little, leaving it to others to decide after hearing the views of some players who want the experiment to continue. But changing the rules, especially the tackle, will serve only to emasculate the game as a contest and leave untouched the root of all the trouble - which is the mindset of the Australians.
It seemed, originally, that their outbreaks of naked aggression were triggered by the success of the Irish in the tests, that having been outwitted in play, they were forced to resort to violence to patch up their tattered image before their own followers. Their eventual mastery of the game itself brought no diminution of their hostility, however. It is not in their nature, their culture, to be anything less than aggressive. They are not for taming. They have shown no remorse for their behaviour in Croke Park, no sense of shame whatsoever.
A quote from one of the country’s newspapers bears out their feelings. “Australia have beaten the Irish both on the scoreboard and in on-field altercations over the past two years, infuriating Gaelic officials. Officials in Australia have branded the Irish hypocritical, saying the Gaelic players have been as much to blame for the violence as their AFL counterparts.”
Assistant coach, Mark Williams, claims there was no more thuggery or violence from the Australian team than from the Irish. “For me it’s all about some minor changes to the rules. It is not a problem that cannot be overcome. The International Rules series must continue to be played between Ireland and Australia.”
While much of the provocation for the Croke Park events came from comments in some daily newspapers following the Galway performance, the Australians will not accept their role as instigators of the hostilities. Tinkering with the tackle or changing the rules, will not root out a principle of their value system . . . the triumph of brawn over brains. It is time to give this long-ranging experiment a miss before someone is seriously injured.
MANAGER RULES ARISE FROM HILL 16 ANTICS
THE decision by the Central Council sages to delegate to participating teams where in Croke Park they are to have their pre-match warm-up clearly follows Mayo’s psychological victory over Dublin in the preliminary skirmishes to their All-Ireland semi-final.
The ruling is fine on condition that Hill 16 is not permanently awarded to Dublin. To ensure fairness, the managers should toss for the location before the teams take the field thus steering clear of any unseemly argument when both sides take the pitch.
I’m not so sure that the location of their warm-up will occupy much of the time of any team in the future, other than Dublin. Mayo scored a momentous psychological victory in commandeering the Hill 16 side for their warm-up in the semi-final, infuriating Dublin, their manager and their supporters. It was a bold move and it cut deeply into Dublin’s self-confidence.
As a tactic it will now have lost its usefulness. No other team will derive the benefit that accrued from Mayo’s gamble. Future opposition to Dublin, including Mayo, will have no interest in depriving the Dubs of a long-standing custom. No opportunity is likely to be made available to them in any case. But to introduce a rule that might be seen as validating that custom is to bestow an unjustified privilege.
The incident may also have precipitated the introduction of new experimental rules which will have the effect of separating selectors from their manager during games. The push by the furious Pillar Caffrey on John Morrison will have been used by the mandarins to justify confining sideline entry to the manager and a few officials . . . effectively forcing the selectors to take up positions in the stand.
Team bosses and their selectors gathered in a huddle discussing team changes is an integral part of Gaelic games. Managers patrolling sidelines offend nobody. Their presence is for some players a source of inspiration.
Constraints of this nature succeed in soccer and rugby because of the structure of those games. You are either a full-back or a prop or a centre in rugby, or a striker or a defender in soccer. Gaelic players are more versatile and swop positions much more frequently thanks to the collective decisions of manager and selectors. To separate them is to isolate managers, to heap an even greater burden of responsibility on them. Selectors are an essential part of the management structure and no manager will want to make vital decisions without first discussing them with his selectors.
Managers are now in revolt and one prominent boss has stated openly that he will not be shackled by any rule from walking the sideline for the county of which he has recently taken charge. We’ll follow closely how well Paidí O Sé observes the new directives.