Thursday, October 26, 2006

International Rules Not OK

In this morning's Irish Times, Mickey Harte, the twice All-Ireland-winning Tyrone manager repeats his criticisms of the International Rules series, which first he stated this time last year around the time of the ill-fated visit of the Irish team to their AFL counterparts. In support of Harte, TSA republishes a piece written on October 28th last year, after the end of the series, under the headline, "Listen to Mickey and End the Madness". Most of it still applies.

One point not covered is the justification of the series through the arguments that the players enjoy it and that, with both games in this year's series likely to sell out, the public do too. My response is that the players would probably enjoy mudwrestling with Las Vegas hookers and, most likely, plenty people would pay to watch that too. Doesn't make it right.

So the annual absurdity that is the International Rules series is over again. The GAA and AFL's yearly bastardisation of their games saw Ireland comprehensively beaten by an Australian team who learned well the lessons from their own hammering last year. As big and tough as usual, they added speed and vastly improved kicking ability to leave the Irish looking feeble in comparison.

Right, can that be the end of it now please?

It may sound like sour grapes in the face of Ireland's defeat - like not wanting to play anymore and taking the ball home with you - but this series is surely more trouble than it is worth. The only valid role it plays, as far as I can see, is affording elite amateur GAA players the perk of a biennial jaunt to the Antipodes in well-earned reward for their unparalleled commitment throughout the inter-county season. But isn't that what the All-Star tour is for?

As a sporting entity the game's integrity is dubious. This mangled code often appears to be the equivalent of what watching Roger Federer play tennis with a cricket bat might look like: you can see the ability, but it is being refracted through a prism of sporting farce. The obvious panic in the Irish players' eyes as they try to dispense with the ball before being clattered is like that of a small boy being chased by playground bullies.

The definitive comment on the game is that it basically dispenses with many of both sports' finest characteristics. Namely, the GAA players cannot display the sidestep, the dummy, the mazy solo run, because the rules are weighted in favour of the Australian 'anything goes' tackling style. The glory of the tricky corner-forward bamboozling an exasperated corner-back is absent.

For the Aussies, the smaller dimensions of the pitch and the less dramatic canvas it thus provides detract from the awe-inspiring nature of their sport's mark-taking, and the breathless athleticism of their running.

Another driver behind the game's existence is the desire to have an 'international' element to Gaelic Games, with the belief that this code will perform some sort of missionary role for the GAA. Look, you can't go on about how the GAA is a cultural cornerstone of Irishness, how it helps define exactly what we are, and how it touches an innate part of our soul like no other game, and then bleat about internationalism! Isn't that what soccer is for?!

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte is an outspoken critic of the game. He bemoans the promotion of this game at the expense of Gaelic Football and is wise to its fundamental pointlessness. He's a wise man, is Mickey, and I'm with him on this one.


Blogger Fence said...

I quite like the international series, but I prefer regular GAA football. Yes it has problems, but it only happens once a year, I don't see the harm in it.
As for the poaching, that might happen anyway, and isn't it right that athletes be given the choice to turn professional and full-time, even if they can't play the game they wish?

1:46 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

I've got no problem with the poaching either; athletes should operate in a free market for their labour.

I just can't work up enthusiasm for the series. Every year it seems to have to justify its own existence and I can't even get into on base, jingoistic grounds - what does an Irish victory prove: that we're better at Australia at a made-up sport? Why don't we take them on at thumb wars or freestyle knitting while we're at it?

3:50 p.m.  
Blogger Fence said...

Don't think of it as a real sport, just an exhibition that earns a bit of money and is a bit of fun. Nothing serious at all about it.

10:38 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your attitude towards Inter-Rules is pretty ignorant. Sure, its neither GAA or AFL: but it is a genuinely good game in its own right...and in good way, watching the elite players of each nation show thier skills as they adapt to the different rules is all part of the attraction. I have had the good fortune to have attended 6 matches over the years - both in Ireland and Australia and have really enjoyed every game. I would say that one of my all time sporting highlights was actually the 2nd test in 2002 at Croke Park with 71,000 fans. Amazing match. I'm sure Inter Rules will flourish and more power to it. I tink 81,000 people will be agreeing with me on Sunday

12:14 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a typical comment from somebody whoose idea of football is a can of beer and a couch. Have you ever played?
I have played both sports. I think the conservative atitudes of the GAA towards international sports has actually done more harm than good. Firstly nobody forces the players to play, they don't get paid. Secondly 82000 people are still 82000 people. If the GAA wish to reach a public outside of Ireland they have to publicise their sport and this is one form. It at least makes people aware that the sports exist.
Fact is Australian rules is slowly becoming popular on the continent, Gaelic football is not. I would prefer to see or play international rules than no rules. Probably time to get up off your couch, turn on your tractor and have a look somewhere outside of your 20 km radius of opinion.

9:08 a.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

The farcical scenes of violence in the first quarter might seem to vindicate my scepticism about this series, and its future; but actually the relentless physicality is only one problem (a pretty nasty one at that).

Why is the game constantly having its existence questioned, despite the 82,000-odd punters coming in the door? Surely the business argument for it is strong.

I maintain that a "test", as used in sporting terms, is supposed to prove something, that the best of two countries should compete for the prestige of supremacy in a sport. The 'compromise' involved in this game was for the professional Australians to concede just enough in the rules of the game to create an even contest. By definition, this is a pointless sporting exercise, and until international rules takes on a life of its own outwith the two subsidiary codes, it will never amount to more than an end of season jolly for the players involved.

I acknowledge the comment that the game can be enjoyable in its own right. But why then the continuing questioning over its future? I believe its for the reason given above.

I have played GAA and I do not own a tractor, although what either point have to do with this argument I have no idea...

7:00 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has had some impacts on AFL rules and strategies. For example, AFL rules now permit a quick play on after a point is scored without waiting for an umpire sanctioned restart - copied from gaelic football. Strategies of squaring the ball across the field to set up scoring thrusts also initially came from the international rules game and were learnt from gaelic football. Both are now an integral part of the AFL.

Perhaps gaelic football, which has a much greater tendency to rely on solo running of the ball could learn a bit from AFL wave and flooding structures, or even making the fullback into a key attacking player by coming right up the ground and breaking the opposition defensive lines (eg, as per Dustin Fletcher).

In this series, the Irish were not beaten by tougher plasyers, or professional players. They were beaten by better structures and more adaptability. Learn from it as the AFL did from the GAA several seasons ago.

The violence was certainly not to be condoned but it was somewhat overrated. Geraghty was tackled by the second smallest and lightest player in the AFL squad. In his case it was 95% accident. The guy that got hip and shouldered by Selwood took a 'soccer dive'. The Aussies didn't complain about Brown when he got hit from the front, or O'Keefe who got head butted.

Come to think of it, maybe you should get back to freestyle knitting.

9:01 a.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Some very interesting points, followed by a needless insult...ah well.

Interesting stuff about the tactical aspects that AFL has taken from the international rules and/or GAA. Both games suffer somewhat from their lack of internationalism by having less outside influences to bring new ideas, so the international rules is worthwhile in this regard.

Whether that is enough to save it, I'm not sure.

I agree the violence was overstated, to be honest it was probably more the 'spectacle' of it that people didn't like - and Irish sour grapes of course. The sight of grown men rolling about like 10-year olds scrapping in a playground looked a bit silly really.

Genuine question: Do you really think the Aussies professionalism/fitness wasn't an advantage, or at least only in the sense that they took a more studied tactical approach? Or was fitness/speed not really an issue?

10:51 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fitness no, speed yes. It is more than 2 months since the large majority of the Australian players trained or played in earnest. They have since been in post season lay off mode and my belief is that they would be well down on the normal level of fitness they would play at during an AFL season. However, for psychological reasons it is to the Aussies' advantage to emphasise fitness whenever and wherever they can. I believe the Irish bought the line.

In the first game at Galway the Irish started closing the game down in the last quarter and ran over the top of the Aussies at the end so fitness was not an issue there.

Speed may be a different matter but this is a selection issue. The Aussie squad was very atypical of a normal AFL side. Nearly all the Aussie squad (obviously Barry Hall and Dustin Fletcher excepted) were what we would call runners or ball carriers. They are the fastest and smallest men in the AFL and form no more than 20% of an AFL team. Apart from Barry Hall, the Aussie squad contained no players that we would normally call 'marking' players. That is, big AFL key position players like centre backs or centre forwards who are the backbone of AFL teams. Why? Because Kevin Sheedy, the Australian coach, developed a completely new counter offensive game style based on running which has no place for dinosaurs.

Look at history. Until 2004, Aussie teams did in fact reflect typical AFL teams and many big men were included because they were very good in the AFL. The results up until then were fairly even with the Aussies getting several bad shellackings. Kevin Sheedy took over as coach of the Aussies in 2005 and developed a new philosophy and selection policy which has proven to be very successful in negating the Aussie lack of skill with the round ball. Aus should have won the first game but it was that lack of skill which let Ireland in.

One of the ironies of this series is that Aus fielded its smallest team ever whereas the Irish, reacting to the psychologocal pressure of professionalism et al, fielded a much bigger side. That is why many of us over here are amused about the violence hysteria because the Irish had the bigger and heavier side.

Lets talk about structures. The Aussie game has developed what we call a defensive flood where all players, not only defenders, flood into the backline to congest the opposition forwards and give them no room to move. The sheer weight of numbers then assists the defence in running the ball out of danger to a point where it can be held if necessary until the forwards can get back into position. The Aussies did this effortlessly in the second quarter at Croke park when the game was effectively determined.

The other key structure the Aussies used was the wave where five or six players run down the ground together laying the ball off to each other with handballs. This has two advantages, the first obvious and the second not so obvious. The first is simply the weight of numbers. If a group of players can run with the ball there is always greater numbers with the wave around any contest which on balance gives them a superior chance of winning the ball. The odds of retaining possesion of the ball outweigh the risks of being exposed behind the wave on a turnover.

The second advantage is that the defence against the wave is usually outnumbered but is often very close to the ball so it is committed to playing at 100% effort, often chasing from attacker to attacker as the ball is laid off. As you may know, you can jog all day at 70% but it only takes a few sharp bursts at 100% to build up the lactic acid and turn the legs to jelly. It is very, very tiring to take a wave full on. On the other hand, you would have seen the Aussies running in parallel with an Irish ball carrier on many occasions, staying between him and the goals and or the attacker's team mate until reenforcements arrived, usually in the form of a flood. The bottom line of this is that tactics as much, or more so, than fundamental fitness determine how you can run out a game since the most tiring thing you can do in any form of football is to chase.

Every AFL side has at least six full time professional coaches, being the head coach, forward line coach, backline coach, centreline coach, ruck coach, and fitness coach. I think this is where the real difference and advantage of the Aussie style lies. I firmly believe the Irish have been totally outcoached over the last two years.

9:59 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Fascinating insight, thanks. Would have been nice to hear more of that kind of thing and less talk about scrapping and fighting. Shame about that.

11:48 p.m.  

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