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Thu 28-Oct-2010 16:55
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A mongrel that infuriates but demands love and affection
The Gaelic Grounds in Limerick last Saturday night was a strange place to be. Nobody quite knew what to expect beforehand, and after the event nobody had expected to see what they had just witnessed. Confused? You're not the only one.
The Compromise/International Rules series has had a chequered history, a mongrel that at times infuriates and then occasionally demands our love and affection.
I happened across the very first Compromise Rules test on You Tube recently, from 1984. It took place in Cork, amidst rain and vast rows of empty seats. A certain Frank Murphy formed one part of the refereeing duo, and from what I saw of the brief few minutes on You Tube Frank was taking no prisoners. That first series in 1984 was marked by several bouts of fisticuffs that would not have been out of place in a boxing ring.
The tackling from the Australians was foreign to the Irish players, and provoked much irritation. Ahead of the second test, the Australian TV presenter made a case for the Antipodeans' form of tackling, saying that it was unfair to ask them in one week to curtail something they were brought up as children to do naturally.
Yet the concept persevered until 1990, after which an eight year hiatus ensued. The resumption in 1998 saw a more streamlined version of the game, and there were less incidents of foul play. This didn't mean that everything was rosy in the International Rules (as it was now called) garden. Croke Park in 2006 saw some rough house tactics that almost resulted in Seán Boylan taking his charges off the pitch, while the previous year's contest saw some clothesline tackles that pushed Marty Morrissey into a state of apoplexy.
OK, enough of the history. Last Saturday's sanitised contest possibly did more damage to the concept of International Rules than any bout of fisticuffs could ever have achieved. This was a contest that wasn't a contest – bar the final ten minutes; there was never a sense of excitement about proceedings, no rousing of the crowd (and a substantial crowd at that).
The Australians were astute in their use of the ball, constantly supporting the man in possession and making full use of the mark mechanism. Physically stronger than the Irish, the Australians used their superior fitness to garner a major lead heading into the final quarter.
Ireland used the ludicrous tactic of playing the ball along the ground soccer style, much to the ire of the crowd. Afterwards, manager Anthony Tohill defended the tactic, suggesting it was used to make full use of the rule that a player could not be tackled if he hadn't possession of the ball in his hands.
It didn't work.
Those around me in the open stand (a great view on a beautiful moonlit night) were begging for either (a) the ball to be picked up by the home players or (b) some “schemozzle” to break out. Neither happened.
What we were left with was a match that replicated a training session. The Aussies would work the ball up the pitch using the mark system, ensuring at all times that they were supporting the man in possession. They always had options, and were impressive in their mastery of the round ball. The Irish in contrast were hesitant, proving wildly inaccurate at times in their kicking.
It didn't make sense.
Many around me left before the final quarter began. Some of those may have missed what many thought was the best tackle of the night – a male streaker who saw fit to show his wares to the unfortunate patrons in the uncovered stand. Many children were in the front rows of that stand – they didn't deserve seeing this idiot getting his fifteen seconds of fame at their expense. Thankfully he was later arrested.
The fact that International Rules is basically a game that only takes place on an annual (sometimes biennial) basis means that it takes some time for all concerned to get to grips with it. It was only in the latter portion of the final quarter that Ireland realised that by playing their natural Gaelic football game they might actually make some inroads. Eleven unanswered points ensured that a final score line of 47-40 kept the contest open ahead of the second test.
It will be interesting to see what kind of crowd attends the second test this weekend in Croke Park. Cutting through the PR spin, the fact is that many people watch this hybrid game because of what they perceive to be the threat of violence – the whiff of cordite was what made the games ‘sexy’ whether we liked it or not - nobody was ever quite sure when it would “all kick off”.
Last Saturday was the complete antithesis of what this game should be all about. It was designed to be a free flowing, athletic contest that both the AFL and GAA could use to showcase the best their sports had to offer. And yes, at times through the years this strange game did produce some great games (the second test in 2002 springs to mind when almost 75,000 people at Croke Park saw Ireland produce a stunning fight back that almost won them the series. The biggest crowd at that time to witness an Ireland team on Irish soil provided an atmosphere to rival any All-Ireland Final – and Brush Shields did a great job in lifting the crowd's spirits at half-time on what was a miserable day).
So this series does have potential, if only the shackles could be released.
It is possible for International Rules to be competitive and physical while not resorting to violence. Passion and commitment mixed with fair play is what we want to see, not some sanitised form of basketball that rouses little more than a moan and a streak from those present.
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