Belfast Telegraph

Better times a legacy of International Rules

By Declan Bogue

One of the basic necessities when it comes to selling sport is the prospect of seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Last Saturday night, the football played in Breffni Park was not extraordinary, but we did see ordinary people do extraordinary things.

In previous years, we would wince as Irish players took the ball into contact against the professionals of the Australian Football League. With their superior conditioning, their extra-curricular boxing and wrestling classes and a physical strength built over years, they would pound the amateurs in the tackle.

However, last Saturday night was a different story. Irish players stood under dropping balls and held off their markers. The Aussies were unable to get even a hand on Jack McCaffrey when he broke with the ball. When the visitors went on the attack, they were dumped to the ground by tenacious Irish players.

Post-match, Australia captain Danny Wells raised his eyebrows as he considered how the swing in strength has gone the way of the Irish. "Last time I played they weren't used to it quite that much. But the Irish boys were quite big, quite strong through the hips and they run pretty hard at you. They have a lot of weight and a lot of power so I suppose with the AFL boys coming over and forcing them to do that, they have taken it on board."

Paul Flynn had been in a few minutes before. It was put to him that their fitness levels compared favourably to the opposition and he responded: "I was expecting that. It is a 72-minute game and the fitness levels of our lads in Gaelic football over the last four or five years have got to a fantastic level. I absolutely was expecting that."

There are those that say Gaelic football takes nothing from this exhibition sport. Not on this evidence. Any aspiring Gaelic football manager will have taken much more notice of the past few International Rules series than we may have thought.

Whenever the professionals of the AFL were tuned in and caring about this series, they would blow our best competitors out of the water.

So, how do you beat the best of Ireland? You had to get bigger, faster and stronger.

Then, you could beat the best in Ireland.

At the start of the last decade, Armagh set the trend of structured weights programmes and broke new ground in terms of what the physique of the average Gaelic footballer should be.

Core stability entered the equation around the same time and although there was a period of experimentation among some teams, now there is a more uniform approach to conditioning.

The influence of strength and conditioning coaches such as John McCloskey and Mick McGurn has percolated down from the International Rules and county scene, into clubs. Now, there isn't a club player in the country that does not put in hours on a gym mat holding the 'plank' position, or doing sit-ups on a Swiss ball.

In the pursuit of power, Gaelic football has become an arms race.

Imitation of champions will always be a trend in the GAA. The old joke goes that if the All-Ireland champions said they had two nights a week of set-dancing, every other panel would be doing the same.

However, the acquisition and knowledge of physiological excellence is no longer a fad, but a pre-requisite for any coach or manager that wants to be taken seriously.

And although there is a supposed winter training ban, some counties are already back hard at it, running and working in the gym.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the All-Ireland final, Dublin manager Jim Gavin was saying: "I know from speaking to other managers, they're already setting themselves up for the 2014 championship. We're probably behind now already."

While watching that game on duty for RTE, former Tyrone defender Philip Jordan said to other analysts that when they won Sam in '08, they thought they had pushed themselves as much as humanly possibly, adding that the following year as defending champions, they were 'blown out of the water'.

Since then, it could be argued that through a mixture of sated hunger and age, Tyrone have never got back to where they were, this year's six-point semi-final loss to Mayo representing an improvement on recent miserable exits at the hands of Dublin and Kerry.

We are on the cusp of a great period of development of GAA players, similar to what professionalism did for rugby union. The next generation of players from organised counties are already versed in nutrition and conditioning. The games will continue to get bigger, better, faster.

And that will be the legacy of International Rules.

Belfast Telegraph

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