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Future of annual Rules battle is in the players' hands

By Declan Bogue

As a jumping-off point, the skirmish between Australia's Jason Akermanis and Peter Canavan in 2000 is as good a place as any to examine the relationship between Australia and Ireland through the ever-shifting prism of International Rules - the sport that is only ever played twice, and now once - a year.

Canavan was vice-captain for Ireland and within 20 seconds of the first Test he was caught flush on the nose with an Akermanis punch. He could feel the blood running into his mouth.

Akermanis was one of those hyper-active pests of players, like say a Craig Bellamy or a Ryan McMenamin, who liked to accompany their superb ball skills with a bit of roguery to get inside the head of their opponents.

Australia respected Canavan's ability, flagged up in the previous two years, so they sent Akermanis after him.

They fought a running battle over two games. Towards the end of the second Test, Canavan was sent off when he was caught exacting some retribution. It earned him a one-match ban, and effectively was the end of his International Rules career.

You might have thought that such a public spat might have left an impression on the Brisbane Lion's former Brownlow medallist. Not a bit of it.

In his 2004 autobiography 'The Battle Within', Akermanis devotes the sum total of zero lines to the incident. In fact, among all the 'strewths', 'rippers' and 'I nearly spewed, mate' mentions, he never even name checks the International Rules series.

There is the sniff that Australia stopped caring about this series a long, long time ago. To compile the evidence would be an exhaustive project. Better to let Canavan share his thoughts on the hybrid sport.

"First of all, you need two interested parties," the former Tyrone captain says. "From a GAA point of view, the vast majority of players want the International Rules to continue. They want the opportunity to represent their country. From a players' point of view there is an appetite for it.

"From an administration point of view, I would say from what I gather, about 70% of the higher levels of the Association are in favour of keeping it going. Maybe that's being generous.

"The AFL, again I don't know how interested they are in keeping it going. The vibe would be yes, they are, but you would need to see them more pro-active."

There is no doubt that there was more appetite from the southern hemisphere when the series was resurrected in 1998.

Derry's Sean Marty Lockhart played in that series and currently sits in the top four capped players, the veteran of eight series and 16 caps.

He shares memories of playing in the storied Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of 65,000 and then travelling to a full house in Adelaide, with its famous grass banks that are still in use for AFL games, unlike Pairc Tailteann in Navan, which has been closed on spurious 'health and safety' grounds.

If anyone would defend the continuation, it would be Lockhart, yet he is a realist also.

"The big thing about Australians is that it is their off-season. A lot of their players are just after a season lasting 10 months and they want to get away," says the Maghera schoolteacher.

"You can't fault them for that either. But the flipside of the argument is that you play for your country, there is a certain pride in that."

Perhaps a route of 'what's seldom is precious' could be pursued. Canavan believes that there could be a level of fatigue among the Aussies that could be addressed by staging it on a bi-annual basis.

"I think it should be every two years, whereby Ireland are over there now, they should be playing two Test matches, and then Australia could come over in two years' time," he explains.

"It would mean that you are heading across to Australia once every four years, which would be a serious saving in terms of expense. I think it would be more appealing in terms of getting the best teams every time."

Lockhart believes that the future will come down to a matter of numbers paying at the gate.

"I think the players' opinions are not going to count because it's going to be very much an attendance-driven decision. They are looking at 45,000 to attend this match and they are hoping for a good spectacle. A lot of people are arguing that this is going to be the last one."

And for all the indifference and indecision around it, the game had its high points, mainly around the time that both men were playing, before the slide into oblivion that was last year's hammering for an all-indigenous outfit over two flat weekends in Breffni Park and Croke Park.

In recent years, Lockhart was a commentator at the games, allowing him a close-up of how the contests have deteriorated.

"From a playing perspective, I really enjoyed it," he reflects. "I felt it was a fantastic game when it was played in the right spirit. We played in 1998, '99, 2000, 2001 and 2003. In those years Australia put out their best team, Ireland put out there best team and it was fantastic."

Canavan concurs.

"The game itself has a lot to offer when played in the right way. When you watch the AFL games now, the majority of players are very well disciplined and very well coached. They are professional.

"This element of bravado, and in some cases thuggery, has been allowed to go unchallenged, but again that's in the hands of the AFL to do something about it."

The future is in the hands of the players and the pockets of the punters.

Ireland face Australia at Paterson's Stadium, Perth, live on TG4 today from 9.30am.

 

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