Danny Hughes: We can learn a lot from the Aussies

Had Michael Murphy been an Australian Rules player, his best years might still be in front of him due to the professional sport’s careful emphasis on conditioning and athleticism to complement natural talent Picture by Inpho

Admittedly, I have not taken much notice of the International Rules series over the last few years. For anyone who has kids, a lie-in is classed as not having to rise until 7.30am.

Luckily for me, this coincided with the start time of Ireland versus Australia last Saturday.

Getting a toddler’s breakfast together has many minefields.

‘No’ seems to be one of the first words my wee girl feels particularly familiar with.

Do you want porridge?


Rice Krispies?




But then again, everything is ‘No’, so toast and Rice Krispies it was.

I turned on the TV expecting to be forced into watching Peppa Pig.

The International Rules were about to begin so I was saved. I used every tactic in the book to ensure I got my way. I never thought I could be pushed around so much by someone so small and young. An 18-month-old toddler dictating every move I make.

The International Rules match was staying on. I was adamant this time and I think she knew I was serious and I was not for turning.

The game was worth watching.

It was worth the money spent to get the players involved and, for the supporters, it looked value for money.

Some fans of Gaelic football want to see the series discontinued.

Why? Because it serves no purpose for our game?

Yes, it didn’t help that no Dublin players could commit. Then again, there are 31 counties outside Dublin so, for me, it wasn’t worth dwelling on.

I always contended that for the players themselves it was worth all the effort for both codes and, a bit like the Railway Cup, for the players it represents a huge honour, sharing a team with top class competitors from different counties. And if that wasn’t enough then, as an ex-player, the honour card can be pulled.

To play for one’s province or country is a phenomenal achievement. Who cares if no-one goes to support it?

Elite competitors will never worry about supporters and their bottom line is usually always about winning, whether there are 1,000 or 100,000 fans watching.

It so happened that 30,000 fans attended.

There are not many sports which can boast those sort of figures and remain disappointed.

Aside from attendances, though, it is also about saying a wee thank you to our elite athletes for bringing us highly entertaining games throughout the average GAA season.

Remember, the vast majority of players who took part in the International Rules series will never win a provincial or All-Ireland title.

For players like Conor McManus and Darren Hughes, there is no annually sponsored car to pick up.

I know Darren Hughes, for example, would be rising at 5am most mornings to milk cows.

So try explaining to him that the Rules don’t matter after leaving his farm halfway through the series to compete with Australian professionals.

I think that sometimes in the press, chatter about the merit of keeping competitions such as the International Rules alive can take up too many column inches. We really should just take it for granted they are staying and be done with it.

One of the considerations being mooted by the GAA involves taking the hybrid game to the USA. This is an excellent idea and is one worth pursuing.

Play a game in Chicago in similar vein to the Ireland v New Zealand rugby international last November. You could play the final game of the series in Croke Park, Dublin.

I actually think we can learn a lot from Australian Rules football. A few years ago, you had an influx of ex-rugby strength and conditioning coaches into GAA fraternities and, as we all knew, players became bigger, stronger and more conditioned.

I think we have come full circle now. I feel that moving away from the pre-occupation with weights to a more functional emphasis on injury prevention and ‘core’ stability is now seen as the way forward.

This is rich coming from me, one of the first converts to weight training all those years ago.

However, when you study the body shape of an Aussie Rules player, he appears more athletic, especially in terms of being much slimmer and leaner. And as the Aussies demonstrated, there is much to gain from that.

You can talk all day about the individual Australian players like Nat Fyfe, but they were much more mobile than Ireland, better in the tackle and possessed vastly superior catching ability.

Just think about this. They compromised on the shape of the ball, which is arguably a harder object to catch, yet they are better than Ireland in a game scenario. It remains a fact that we have a lot to learn.

Perhaps now with the introduction of the ‘mark’ most recently in Gaelic football, we may see an improvement in the skill in our game.

I think that we can agree that one of the best players in our game, Michael Murphy, is a significant presence.

You cannot help but feel, however, that due to his longevity in Gaelic football, the years of toiling may come back to bite him given that he is reaching his late 20s and nearing 30.

Murphy played his best football in his late teens and early 20s. He is a natural player and he will never lose this. However, I would suspect that in Aussie Rules, given their own conditioning and expertise, Murphy could have been an even better athlete and his best days could well have been still ahead of him.

This is one of the fundamental problems in Gaelic football, particularly at county level.

In many cases, excellent, naturally talented young players come along and every ounce of energy, talent, skill and commitment is sucked out of them by successive managers and trainers.

Longevity in county football and hurling is an after-thought.

In most counties, the backroom teams change when the county manager changes, whereas in many other sporting environments, like Aussie Rules, American football, soccer and rugby, backrooms remain in place, contracted to the club.

Yes, managers and coaches may take outside coaches with them, but more often than not, there is continuity within the wider development and fitness teams.

This is something each county can learn from. Managers may come and go at every level, but the continuity of backroom teams are a fundamental part of any successful team.

From my understanding, this is what makes Dublin so successful in the last few years. Seamless transitions from Pat Gilroy to Jim Gavin. We can learn a lot from the Aussies.

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