Peter Canavan: Cream of crop must be on display to keep International series relevant
There are few things in the GAA that prompt opinions as strong and as varied as the International Rules series.
They range from 'mongrel game' to players talking about it in terms of it being among the greatest honours you can have as well as everything in between.
My own history with the game is mixed. I played in three series in 1998, 1999 and 2000. We won the first two under Colm O'Rourke. Brian McEniff took over then but we lost at home in 2000. I was sent off that year along with Jason Akermanis and subsequently suspended. It was a sour note on which to end my association with the game, but I have to say I loved every minute.
You'll hear the same from most players. The only time I didn't play when asked was when I was injured back in 1990. I remember being disappointed to miss out. I'd have known the irrepressible James McCartan well at that stage. He is around the same age as me and he went on that trip so I made sure to follow how he got on over there.
James was rooming with Jack O'Shea and he did an interview and was asked what it was like to room with a legend of the game. James' response was that Jacko didn't mind!
I notice that there aren't any Dublin lads on the panel this year. That there is no one from our most decorated team is a blow and I feel for Joe Kernan not being able to call on them. I know they had their reasons but it's a concern because when the Australians were sending less than their best it almost brought the series to its knees.
I just hope it's a one-off and they aren't being dissuaded from playing because I know much of the enjoyment I derived from it came from the fact that teams I played on genuinely felt like the best in the country.
We pretty much had all the top players around that time. Under O'Rourke, our full-back line was Sean Marty Lockhart, Darren Fay and Seamus Moynihan. Nothing got by them. Glenn Ryan and Sean Og de Paor were there. We had Anthony Tohill, Ciaran Whelan and John McDermott around the middle. Graham Geraghty, Trevor Giles, Ja Fallon, Michael Donnellan and Padraic Joyce were in the forwards.
We had a great team and great set-up under O'Rourke with John O'Keeffe and Mickey Moran part of the backroom team.
It's said that players only like it because it's a junket, but it was genuinely an honour to be selected to play alongside those players.
I have it down as a high point in my career.
People often ask me about Akermanis. He took it upon himself to do a marking job that day by any means necessary and I took some exception to it. We both ended up getting sent off.
The clearest memory I have of that whole episode is the post-match function later that night where the players were left to mix freely.
Across the room, I saw one of their big fellas, he must have been 6ft7, making a beeline for me from across the room.
He looked pretty menacing as he approached with a bottle of beer in his hand. At this stage I was wishing it was Darren Fay beside me rather than Ja Fallon! Anyway, he arrived over and he just stuck out his hand and said: "It looks like you broke his nose, fair play mate."
I haven't met Akermanis since. People had him down as a bit of a mad man but there was much more to him than that. I know he went on to have a great career in the AFL.
In 1998 and 1999 the players from both sides got on quite well but the 2000 series had a nasty edge to it.
We were after beating them two years in a row and they came to settle the score. I had my running battle with Akermanis but there were plenty of other lads getting it hot and heavy too. I remember we went off at half-time in Croke Park and they were well on top. As we walked into the dressing room under the Cusack Stand, the Aussie boys had waited for us.
They started mouthing, letting us know they were on top. They had clearly been stung by being beaten by the amateurs in the previous two years and they were going all out to win. I had been around the block by that stage but that caught me off-guard. I think a few of us got our eyes opened in terms of targeting players and the darker arts.
That's not sour grapes, they totally outplayed us and in the process taught us so much.
The kick-out strategies you saw some teams employ this summer, where they would pack the middle before breaking out into the space at the last minute? The Aussies were doing that years ago.
Every time we played they'd show us something different or a new way of doing things that could be adapted for football. I remember thinking that with Tyrone we were moving the ball fast but the Aussies showed us that we only thought we were.
The speed in which they covered the ground and their angles of running opened our eyes. We took that home and learned what we could. I have no doubt the International Rules has hastened the tactical revolution we have seen over the last 20 odd years.
I'm looking forward to the series this year. In the 1980s it was more akin to UFC where we would have been better off with Conor McGregor than Conor McManus. It looked flat-out dangerous. It flared up again in the middle of the last decade but I think they have found the right balance now.
And as long as both Ireland and Australia keep sending their best, the series has a future. And a bright one at that.