Wednesday 13 December 2017

Rules to start panto season

SLUMBERING Gaels awake. Autumn's about to get interesting.

If you're strung out by the absence of The Sunday Game from your end-of-week viewing or depressed by the ever darkening evenings, well, get thee to Limerick this Saturday. It's not about counties, it's about country -- apparently.

Like you, we're still buzzing with excitement from the O'Byrne Cup draw the other night and, out of nowhere, we spot the International Rules -- that most contentious of spectacles shoved so awkwardly into the Irish sporting calendar like a roundy peg into a triangular hole.

Lately, these occurrences have served to quench our thirst for violence rather than to derive entertainment from a game of football, and if you added up all the comment on whether the series had a future against actual on-field analysis, we'd have a landslide for the former. This year promises to be different, though.

Just about every time the International Rules comes around, someone or other declares the looming series will "make or break" the game as an entity but regardless of what happens over the next two Saturdays in Limerick and Croke Park, the series will get another outing in Australia in 2011.

Anthony Tohill has already said that this year's panel will be the core for next season's trip Down Under and, let's face it, those who board the long flight to Oz at the GAA's or the AFL's or the sponsor's expense, aren't going to do the whole turkeys-voting-for-Christmas routine when an airline ticket is being pressed into their hand.

Everyone is sceptical of the International Rules though, except -- we're told -- the players. But there's no doubt that something like this has an audience if only they could get the actual sport itself right.

Most county finals have been played already. The provincial club championships won't catch fire until next month and, in all honesty, fail to capture anything much greater than parochial interest. So the GAA calendar is screaming for something big, shiny and fun for starved patrons to sink their teeth into.

Unfortunately, the Association has responded by offering one of the most understated and lifeless promotional campaigns ever to detract from the series.

'It's not about counties, it's about country', is the rather uninspiring catch-line most likely coined by people wary of the 'No Compromise' tag which had everyone baying for blood from the stands like Romans in the Colosseum while the Catholics were decapitated on the pitch back in 2006.

From the clotheslining of Philip Jordan in 2005 to the unconscious, lifeless form of Graham Geraghty in Croke Park in '06, the rebirths of the game have always teetered on the verge of disaster. The sight of Seán Boylan taking his team off the pitch at the end of the third quarter of the second test back then was almost as farcical as the Australian goal in the first half which was allowed to stand despite the sporadic brawls which were breaking out in every nook and cranny of the pitch.

We have a strange relationship with the Aussies. For some unexplained reason, we crave their respect and ask them every time they come to visit if they aren't impressed with the fitness and skill levels of our amateur players.

For their part, the visitors have that natural Australian sporting arrogance. They despise losing, particularly to said amateurs, so whenever it's put up to them, we have ourselves a barney.

The last series in Australia in 2008 was a bloodless spectacle but, despite recent assertions to the contrary, the matches lacked intensity with Australia making so many concessions that it appeared like they were playing with one hand tied behind their backs.

And the suspicion remains that if they merely upped their physicality, they would walk away with the series, just as they did the chaotic tests of '06.


Yet the game has its specialists who, in all fairness, deserve this International Rules outlet. Nathan Brown's comfort with the round ball in 2004 was majestic while Padraic Joyce's tour de force in the second test in Croke Park that year was as skillful as any performance he managed with Galway.

Still, our interest in the Australians focuses more on which are the 'hard men' or the 'enforcers' we love to hate so much.

And we've always been quite good at anointing Aussie goons.

Think Big Bad Barry Hall -- an ex-boxer, of whom several YouTube compilation clips are dedicated to his random acts of on-field violence. He met his match in Graham Canty back in 2003 and we were all delighted. Or Brendan Fevola, whose premature departure from the 2006 test for heroically assaulting a barman in Galway was almost as spectacular as his Oliver Reed impression at the Grand Final Footy Show at the 2009 Brownlow Medal Count.

The original Aussie badboy, though, was Jason Akermanis, the Mark Vaughan lookalike who used to relish all the hybrid fun. Aker' and Peter Canavan got all close and personal in the series of 1999 and 2000 and the former recalled recently that Canavan punched him and "ran away like a big girl up the park".

His rap sheet includes being sacked by two clubs while he also penned a newspaper article advising gay AFL players not to 'come out'.

Only six of the 22-strong Australian squad have played this game before and if on Saturday in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick they behave as impeccably as their last squad did in 2008, we've a hunch the second test in Croker will be played in front of a half-empty stadium.

See, everyone loves to hate the pantomime villains and the International Rules gives us the chance to get all parochial and preachy whilst simultaneously engaging in some harmless xenophobia. Rightly or wrongly, that's the draw of the International Rules.

Are we all ready to rumble?

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