Steven McDonnell: International Rules may have its critics, but I will always cherish memories of playing alongside some of Gaelic football's finest
A PICTURE popped up on my Facebook page a couple of days ago of my playing days for Ireland in the International Rules and it brought back many fond memories for me.
It also got me thinking about the hybrid game in general. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but having represented Ireland in six different series, I can tell you I am still a huge fan.
It’s now four years since the last International Rules series was played and I would welcome a return of it in the near future if at all possible. I was very fortunate that I got the opportunity to play alongside some of the players that I did, and got to see a different side to them compared to the guys I would have come up against on a regular basis. I have always said that you form serious friendships when you are involved in the GAA and they carry extra weight when you play alongside someone.
When you are involved in sport, you always want to challenge yourself to reach greater levels, and playing against professional Australian Rules players was always a test that I enjoyed and thrived on.
We know the competitive nature of Australians in general and these guys would walk over the top of you if they spotted a weakness and thought they could get away with it, but if you stood toe to toe with them, then more often than not, you could identify ways of getting the better of them.
A smart player has always done well in the International Rules as they would pick up on the dos and don’ts quite quickly. When to make a mark, when to carry a ball, when to play it soccer style and when to utilise the obvious advantage that the Irish had, which was playing with a round ball as opposed to the oval-shaped ball that they use in their game.
Nobody likes losing but the Australians absolutely hated it when the amateurs beat them and that is when they generally reverted to more off-the-ball hits and sly digs.
In the days when I played the game, an abiding memory is of my ex-Armagh colleague Kieran McGeeney wrestling with one of the Australians on the ground, just below the Hogan Stand and the Australian had to tap out to give in to Kieran’s headlock that he had him in.
He certainly could have picked on someone a bit less physical than Kieran, but he loved those types of challenges.
In 2006, in the first test in Galway, Kieran Donaghy was making his debut at full-forward in his breakthrough year.
The guy marking him started hitting him before a ball was thrown in and, unless you have experienced it before, they will take that inch and run a mile. I spotted this happening and ran towards them and decked the Australian full-back. I just had the experience that Kieran didn’t have at that particular time to put a stop to it, which it did.
On the field, you can never be prepared to back down no matter who you are up against, and this is an essential requirement when you play against Australia.
I would love to see a trial of the International Rules back up and running with the best players of both codes selected to represent their countries, but this time played on neutral territory like over in America.
The first test could be played in the west coast with the second one being played in the east coast, quite possibly in the Giants Stadium so long as the pitch surface is big enough to cater for the hybrid game.
I have no doubt that with the Irish and Australians over in America, these tests would both be a sell-out. Therefore, it’s a win-win situation for the GAA and the AFL. Players at the minute are not being afforded the opportunity to represent their country and it’s really only when you get that chance to pull on the Ireland jersey, that you feel the importance of it.
The game will always have its critics, but I will forever be a follower of it.
For what it’s worth, here are the 15 best players that I played alongside in an Ireland jersey and I have left out some of the best players to ever play Gaelic Football.
1. Stephen Cluxton
2. Ciaran McKeever
3. Graham Canty
4. Sean Marty Lockhart
5. Tom Kelly
6. Kieran McGeeney
7. Aidan O’Mahony
8. Tadgh Kennelly
9. Sean Cavanagh
10. Colm Begley
11. Michael Murphy
12. Joe McMahon
13. Benny Coulter
14. Kieran Donaghy
15. Leighton Glynn