The International Rules Series divides opinion.
A Fox Sports poll showed that, as of Saturday, 54 per cent of 3525 voters rated the exercise an expensive waste of money, while the remaining 1600 rated it as an important way to further spread the AFL gospel.
Up until 2014, with dwindling crowds and bad-tempered encounters, the contest seemed certain to be consigned to the sporting history books. But then the AFL introduced improved selection criteria for players to invigorate the concept.
And invigorate it, it did.
With the All Star rule in place, a 38,262 sellout crowd watched Australia win a close encounter 0.17.5 (56) to 2.9.7 (46) at Subiaco Oval last year.
The impetus provided by the revitalised concept was enough for the RTÉ match report to include the statement, “The series will surely survive as long as they continue to follow the template laid down in this game.”
And on the basis of the weekend’s action, it surely will.
Although Croke Park was far from full on a chilly four degree night in Dublin, the 38,387 who were present were treated to a thoroughly entertaining game, with the Irish prevailing in a thriller, 3.11.5 (56) to 1.13.7 (52).
The AFL ‘dream team’ featured stars all over the field, adding prestige to the occasion. While the GAA squad featured just nine All Stars due to injuries and club commitments, it did feature the three best forwards in the game; Conor McManus (Monaghan), Aidan O’Shea (Mayo) and captain Bernard Brogan (Dublin).
This year’s GAA Championship season had seriously underwhelmed on the field – with defensive domination and a proliferation of hand passing dominating over the favoured kicking game. The GAA disciplinary rules were under fire after a series of unsavoury incidents in matches went largely unpunished.
The Irish Independent‘s Eugene McGee, one of the foremost voices on the game, went as far as to say that Dublin and Kerry needed to “restore our faith in game” before the All Ireland Final this year.
Sometimes a distraction is needed from this negativity.
And Sunday morning helped provide it.
The match was devoid of the ill discipline that had marred previous series – and indeed this GAA season – and while this year’s Championship was dominated by cautious, defensive play, in this format the Irish displayed their full array of attacking options.
Coach Joe Kernan placed a big emphasis on kick passing and skill by picking players like Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly for his first Ireland cap. And it showed. The GAA team swarmed forward curtesy of clean, incisive kicking across the park, shocking the AFL players with their intensity and accuracy.
Additionally, the tourists struggled to find the net – as expected owing to the unfamiliarity of the skill required – but with keeper Niall Morgan of Tyrone in fine form – notably denying Jarryd Roughead on the stroke of quarter time with a marvellous save – it was always going to be a tough ask.
The Irish had no such trouble. The 1.92-metre O’Shea was immense, scoring two goals and an over from open play. McManus added a penalty to complete the goalscoring, while Brogan settled for four overs to keep the scoreboard ticking over in his man of the match performance.
O’Shea brings a different dynamic to GAA football with his size, and is sometimes judged to be unfairly penalised by officials domestically. But the pharmaceutical company purchaser revelled in the physical contest against the Aussies, and his soaring marks were the equal of any of the professionals in the Australian code last season.
Australia’s scoring troubles weren’t alleviated until Eddie Betts punched a major score through in the final quarter, setting up the exciting finale.
But the Irish prevailed, reclaiming the Cormac McAnallen Cup and bragging rights on home soil.
One of the major criticisms of the International Rules Series is that it doesn’t mean anything.
Francis Leach even made the forthright assertion that allowing a representative match such as this to exist at all devalues the concept of a national shirt on ABC Grandstand’s Press Pass this Sunday afternoon.
But can representing your country ever really mean nothing?
Scoring the opening goal certainly looked like it meant something to Aidan O’Shea.
And Luke Hodge was well aware of the crowd excitement as he implored his fellow professionals to aspire to play in future International Rules matches, telling them they’d “be crazy” not to.
The Irish players loved it as well. Brogan said pre-game that, “It is both an honour and a privilege to … represent Ireland”.
“As Gaelic footballers, opportunities to play for Ireland and pit our skills against athletes from other nations and codes are few and far between.”
And that’s the main point. Who are we to deny players the opportunity to represent their country?
The AFL and GAA are two of the only major sports leagues in the world without this honour. The similarities in the sports are such that series like this are a viable opportunity to give the best players the chance to honour their All Australian selection – rather than just hang their decorative jersey on the wall.
And I’d say that anyone who actually watched the game on Sunday morning would have enjoyed it. Enjoyed the speed, the skill, the underlying plucky underdog story, and especially the entertainment.
Because what is sport if not these things?
The players want the International Rules Series to stay. I say, let’s enjoy it with them.