Monday, November 7, 2011

International Rules series dying a slow death

After yet another International Rules series ended with a violence on field and scoreboard, we must now ask if the series has a future. The movement for it's abolition is gaining strength after a week which must have been painful for IR advocates like Ron Barassi.

While the games are undeniably similar, it's popular fallacy that Australian football evolved from Gaelic football. Both sports require remarkable endurance and skill. It seemed logical that games so isolated yet so similar should breed a hybrid competition; both sports feature "All-Ireland" or "All-Australian" teams, rewarding each sport's best players but don't give those elite a team to play against.

The International Rules series was founded to give GAA and AFL players the chance to represent their country in competitions which don't provide that opportunity. With over six years of violence - and multiple hiatuses - the GAA and AFL's so-called best don't deserve that opportunity any more.

As commentators noted during the most recent match on the Gold Coast, the series has become a farce. It no longer represents the best interests of Australia or Ireland. Those countries, both feisty at the best of times, don't need "representation" of this sort.
From an Australian point of view, the International Rules series was aimed to give the best players in Australia the chance to represent their country. For over a decade now this has been a mockery as All-Australians make themselves unavailable for selection, either through press statement or ridiculous suspension.

How was the side that played the most recent matches in any way or shape inclusive of the best in the country? It was a team captained by Melbourne skipper Brad Green, who essentially inherited that position by being that club's most senior player. His year was hardly a model of leadership; his first year at the top will probably be best remembered for the side's 186-point roll-over at Geelong and the subsequent sacking of Dean Bailey. Alongside a frankly mediocre captain, would Matt Suckling, Easton Wood or Zac Smith make anyone's All-Australian ballots?

For the Australians, what was instituted as an opportunity for the elite has changed into a representative match devoid of honour. Playing to win is fine, and therefore sides should be picked accordingly. However, rewarding several of our league's most average talents is hardly high honour. Representing one's country should be the highest accolade a sport can bestow - indeed, it is the very (only?) reason for this series - and thus should go to the country's best. That the honour isn't wanted by the best, only signifies the lack of regard in which the competition is held.

It's also worth pointing out that those representing their country should do so with the nation's best interests at heart. A series aimed at building friendships with the potential to span continents should be played as such - highly competitive but in the spirit of the football "friendly". After last Friday's match, would any of the Irish and Australians settled down for a beer together?

For some reason, the games just seem to breed hate.

The game has become a disgrace to both codes: just watch for the number of cheap shots. With there being no apparent consequence for indiscretions other than yellow cards and IR suspensions, players are relatively free to infringe the law and spirit of the game. Should the series be played again, any suspensions for unsportsmanlike play should carry over to the next year's GAA or AFL competition and be adjudged by that league's disciplinary panel.

This may instill further club opposition towards the series and which may kill the sport. If clubs in either country don't sanction their players for unduly rough play, then the series as it stands doesn't deserve to survive.

The greatest single detractor for the game are ludicrous IR suspensions - like the one given to Matthew Scarlett - which ban players from further International games. The reputation of a nascent sport has been so brutally blackened by such legislative decisions, never mind those like Brendan Fevola's 2006 bar fight.

It's also damning that, as an ardent Aussie Rules supporter and someone who would like to see the International format succeed, there have been so few memorable moments from the series' twelve years. In truth, apart from the fights, only two stand out: Mick Malthouse trying without luck to get Dale Thomas to play defensively in 2008 and Nathan Buckley's "over" in 1999 to win the second match for Australia. And I'm not even a Collingwood fan. That the prevailing memories of a series with great potential is of fisticuffs speaks volumes.

Should the series return in 2012, there should be major changes. The competition once again should be aimed at the best players in the country, otherwise the accolade is meaningless. Secondly, and perhaps crucially, both sides should agree to appoint ambassadorial coaches and captains for their squads whose brief is to ensure the glorification of the game, rather than it's decline. For Australia, it seems Chris Judd and Kevin Sheedy would be perfect men for the task.

The series deserves one last chance. The Galahs of 1967 deserve to see their legacy survive. But to do so, it needs vastly revamped rules and citizenship. It isn't asking for much.

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