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GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: International Rules was better than 95 per cent of Gaelic Football matches

Ireland’s Conor McManus is tackled by Brendan Goddard of Australia. Photo: Inpho 

OUR school bus collected us at 8.30am every day for the five-minute journey to Dungiven.

The O’Kane household was half-a-mile from the bus stop at the end of the road, so we left at 8.20am to walk out. In first year, we would have often come out with our next door neighbour.

Cathal ‘Fox’ was one of the Big Boys. A fifth year. He had this big, long stride that seemed to take him the half-mile in eight steps. I had to run to keep up.

He didn’t mess when it came to the bus timetable. Our bus was to lift us at 8.30. If it was five minutes late, you were back in the road.

Colm Brolly was one of the bus drivers and on one particular morning, the bus arrived at 8.36. We were already at the bottom of the hill. He was waving for us to come back up as we catapulted ourselves into ditches in a forlorn attempt at avoiding detection.

It was very rare that our bus was late and thus very rare that we got to go home and say the bus didn’t come.

There were only two sporting occasions that coincided with the bus not coming during my school days.

One was the day Ronaldinho cut the ribbon on Ireland’s favourite biennial occasion, namely The Day England Get Knocked Out Of A Major Tournament.

The other was one of the International Rules tests in Australia. This would have been in the early 2000s and I can’t remember much detail about it, other than my delight at getting back home to see the boxing.

There’s a bit of the Neolithic man still lives on inside all of us. The International Rules was attractive because it was primal. The more fighting involved, the better it seemed.

The zenith was when they fought before the ball was even thrown in.

When the Australians needlessly took it all to a new level in 2005, in a series that they would have won by a country mile anyway, it became almost wholly unattractive.

Kieran McGeeney might always have been fit to get one or two into a headlock but the reality was that Ireland were there to be bullied by men that were much bigger, faster and stronger.

Twelve years on, Ireland proved the gap has narrow as they and Australia served up something altogether different.

When you strip it all back and purge all prejudice from your mind, the criticisms that would have to take it on the chin are the cost of the venture and the demeaning impact of having no-one from either the All-Ireland or AFL Grand Final champions involved.

They are both valid arguments and strong ones at that. Paying for a pool of 35-odd men to travel halfway around the world, stay for two weeks and play two glorified friendlies is something that this series will never escape.

But then you must weigh that up against the value to the Irish communities in the Australian cities they visit. While there were only 25,502 at the game in Adelaide, a significant portion were Irish. The second test in Perth is set to be a sellout and there could be as many as 20,000 Irish at it.

A lot of the young men and women exiled do everything they can to stay true to their roots. Joining the local GAA club is one of the first jobs when you step off the plane.

Many are there out of necessity, forced out of the motherland to find work during the recession, and while they all make a conscious decision to stay, that doesn’t make them any less Irish.

Whether it’s as a social occasion, a love of the football or a combination of the two, these are major events on the calendar for the expatriated.

Any suggestion that it is a breeding ground for the pilfering of Irish players couldn’t be more wrong. Can you think of anyone who’s gone to the AFL in recent years that was spotted in the International Rules?

The Aussies are far wiser than that. They have a network of scouts watching colleges football and picking lads up at an age where they can more easily adapt. Most recruits are in their late teens.

The Australians had spoken all last year about wanting to impose their physicality on Ireland but, while there weren’t too many backward steps, it didn’t head down that path. For it to have done so could have been the end of it.

The first half was thoroughly entertaining by any standards. The pace of it was such that it was genuinely easier to follow the All-Ireland hurling final in September. One ball wasn’t dead until the next one was laced out.

That was always going to taper somewhat in 34 degree heat but Ireland’s finish to the game was a testament to their fitness levels, given they were three men down from a 23-man squad.

As the erudite Enda McGinley has pointed out in recent weeks, there are elements of the sport that Gaelic football could adopt if it wants to open out the spectacle.

The mark for forwards is a much-maligned idea and yet it seemed suitable reward for good attacking play. Some of the catches taken by the like of Chad Wingard, Ben Brown, and our own Michael Murphy, deserved better than to be swarmed by four men and dispossessed.

Indeed the only reason Murphy hasn’t morphed into one of the greatest full-forwards of all-time is because of the risk contained for Donegal in playing him in there.

Forwards flourished, with Conor McManus outstanding, and for defenders it put the emphasis back on the individual rather than the collective. There were no hiding places, even if that didn’t work out so well for the Irish full-back line.

Australia played a shrewd system and were tactically smart, patiently dancing around the middle third to let the Irish punch themselves out, but none of it outweighed the face-to-face combat that our own game was once famed for.

When rule changes that would encourage a return to that are suggested, the counter-argument is that the golden years weren’t all that golden. And they weren’t. Some of it was dreadful.

But players now are much more skilful on the whole, and rather than be drawn in by what harm it might do, it’s perhaps worth exploring what good could come from rewarding direct attacking play.

Because to be perfectly honest, you mightn’t have liked it, but Sunday’s spectacle was more entertaining than 95 per cent of Gaelic football matches I’ve seen in the last few years.

I’d definitely have skipped school to watch it, boxing or not.

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