GAA Football

Railway Cup can replace the gap left by International Rules

Ireland's International Rules players celebrate their win over Australia to regain the Cormac McAnallen Cup at Croke Park last year
Picture by Seamus Loughran

NO INTERNATIONAL RULES series this year? Oh no. However, can the GAA provide its paying public with games that showcase the very best footballing talent on the island now?

How can the association dream up a format that will produce entertaining action that should attract the interest of Gaels across Ireland? A competition that would include players from almost all the counties, certainly in football, including most of the Allstar nominees, playing in genuinely competitive games not just an easy-going score-fest as happens on the Allstars tours.

Well… I realise it’s cool (or whatever the kids say this week) to love the International Rules but so, like, you know, boring to admit you enjoy the ‘Railway Cup’ - but I’m not keen on the former and I love the latter. Yet, if you profess a fondness for the Inter-Pros you’re almost made to feel as if you regularly wear faded denim and white trainers (*cough* I was painting, okay?).

I’ll admit it, I don’t enjoy watching Australian Rules football. The stop-start nature of that game is one turn-off, while it just doesn’t seem right to be rewarded on the scoreboard for kicking a ball close to - but not actually on - a very big target.

I understand the appeal of the international dimension of the International Rules, the pride in representing and supporting your country, but when that’s limited to only ever being against one other nation, that aspect is lessened somewhat.

Apart from that element, the International Rules series are popular largely because the GAA (and the AFL) make them an ‘event’, something you feel you should be at. So why can’t they do the same for inter-provincial series in football and hurling?

GAA director-general Paraic Duffy set out the case against the inter-pros in his most recent annual report, writing: “In 2012, central council spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the future of the inter-provincial championships…

“Despite abundant evidence that the public had little interest in the competitions, the enthusiasm of central council members for them remained undiminished. The familiar arguments for the case to revive and renew the competitions were brought to bear: play them over a single weekend, launch a major marketing campaign, let spectators in without an admission charge etc.

“Following that central council debate, however, the cold truth made itself known: the 2013 competitions (six games) attracted total gate receipts of 12,220, a figure that fell to 7,126 in 2014.”

Yet, much as I admire Paraic Duffy, that’s a strange argument to make. Clearly, spectators weren’t let in without an admission charge. Even more importantly, there was no ‘major marketing campaign’: not in 2013, not in 2014 and not last year.

The Ulster Council did make some effort last year, with the football due to be hosted over a December weekend in Newry and Armagh, but it was far from the advertising bombardment that accompanies the International Rules. In fact I struggled to find out the throw-in times when I was writing previews of the semi-finals. The competition did not take place due to bad weather - what a shock in this country, in December.

However, Duffy hammered another nail into its coffin when he pointed out that “in any case, given the number of elite players who had already indicated their non-availability, the signs for a renewal of public interest were not good.

“Maybe now is the time to accept the inevitable: our crowded playing calendar and a lack of interest among players and the public tell us that the competitions have no viable future.”

I don’t accept those ‘cons’ in the case against the ‘pros’. As regards the playing calendar, in that same annual report, Duffy stated the GAA’s intention to fit in a two-game International Rules series this year, in November.

Obviously that will not happen now, but players would have found the time to go to Australia for a week or more, so surely they can spare a weekend in Ireland? Especially if the matches are held in Croke Park.

If they were trying for November for the International Rules, then it should be much easier to fit in the inter-pros during that month, rather than the unhelpful scheduled dates of December 10/11. It’s no wonder some players weren’t keen on playing in the cold and wet at the end of a long season compared to the warmth of Australia.

Decent dates are the key. Most players, when asked, seem to declare they love the competition and we have to take them at their word. After all, many of them freely offer strong opinions on social media and to the traditional press and broadcast media, so there’s no reason to think they’re merely paying lip service to the concept of the inter-pros.

From an Ulster perspective, great GAA men like Brian McEniff, Art McCrory, Joe Kernan and Pete McGrath love it, so that’s good enough for me. As for the public, all those people who moan about the poor entertainment provided by modern football should watch Railway Cup matches and they’ll see fairly open, high-scoring fare.

The GPA should certainly endorse it. Indeed, perhaps they could persuade Iarnrod Eireann to really make it the Railway Cup again, come on board and use the competition as a - ahem - vehicle to show how good their service is at bringing people from north, south-east and south-west and west, up, down and across to Dublin.

The International Rules has only been ‘cost-neutral’ - ie non-profitable - in recent years. Spend some money on the inter-pros, they wouldn’t even cost that much. Spend the level of cash that was lashed out on that hurling abomination in Boston.

Heck, if the GAA actually gives the inter-pros a fair crack, promotes it properly on a decent date, I’ll even give the price of the tickets to the semi-finals and final to charity. Time for everyone to put their money where their mouth is.

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