Pulling on the Ireland International Rules jersey is the pinnacle of a GAA player’s career. It is an honour for All Ireland winners and representatives of smaller counties to compete for their Country for the Cormac McAnallen Cup. It has been the same since the series started back in 1984. One of the positives has been the way the series shine a light on the players from so called weaker counties. International Rules stars like Leighton Glynn, Sean Marty Lockhart have rubbed shoulders with All Ireland winners.
The Compromise Rules Days
The International Rules started life back in 1984 coinciding with the GAA’s Centenary year. It was known then as Compromise Rules which was a cute name given how uncompromising some of the on pitch antics became. The Men pulling the O’Neills Ireland jersey in those days were tough as nails.
The arrival of tough professional Australians like the Dipper DiPierdomenico was exotic but the Aussies were hardy boys who could take it and particularly dish it out on the footie field. They were big, tough and skilful. Much the same as they are now. The hits were boneshakers, and lads tackled like there was no tomorrow.
In the early days the Australians looked exotic with their sleeveless skin tight jumpers and hugging shorts. For a while Ireland’s O’Neills jerseys followed the sleeveless path also. But eventually they returned to type. The International Rules have generated plenty of talking points down the years, on and off the pitch. Keith Duggan writing in the Irish Times put it well when he said: “The original Compromise Rules was less a test of footy skills as an out and out exploration of Irish and Australian manhood.”
After the first bone crushing and often excessively violent encounters the game was put on ice until 1999. Reintroduced, it reached its peak in the early 2000s when it was drawing crowds of over 60,000 in Croke Park and Melbourne.
Akermanis and Canavan
In 2000 Brisbane’s Jason Akermanis and Tyrone legend Peter Canavan developed a serious on pitch rivalry that descended into a couple of handbag sessions and with a few blows landed on both sides.
It all kicked off in the opening 30 seconds of the first Test in Croke Park, and the two lads were sent off after exchanging punches during the second Test. The sledging continued off the field, and recalling the matches ten years later, Akermanis claimed Canavan had punched him in the nose before he “ran away like a big girl up the park”, adding that he was “far from a tough guy”. Canavan had a different recollection which is: “I suggest we should watch a video of that one again. He must have got a bang on the head because his memory is not great.”
A Dog Day Afternoon
In 2004 before the ball was even thrown in at Croke Park a major row broke out, with Mayo star Kieran McDonald the clear target of Aussie Dean Solomon. Captain James Hird was sent off after three minutes. And in a sickening ‘tackle Meath’s Graham Geraghty bounced off the Croke Park surface like a rag doll before being stretchered off the field. When the likes of Kieran McGeeney would land a well aimed dig to an antipodean solar plexus a grateful nation would nod. Generally we looked on with disapproval as the sons of Ireland were received some distasteful tactics from professional Australian sportsmen.
The game has now of course been cleaned up drastically, it had to be. But the match had a funny side too, someone released a Jack Russell terrier onto to the Croke Park pitch and the mutt showed off a fine repertoire of fancy footwork, proving better at evading Aussie tackles than some of the Irish players, before it was eventually persuaded to leave the field of play.
In 2005 Chris Johnson’s clothesline stopped Tyrone and Ireland defender Philip Jordan in full flight. He immediately repeated the dose on Mattie Forde earning a straight red and subsequently a five-match ban, ruling him out of selection for three year. Speaking at the time Johnson showed some remorse:
"You don't know how disappointed I am in myself at what happened. To Philip Jordan and Mattie Forde, I apologise sincerely to you guys. I'd like to say to them that I can't believe it was me doing those things - it's not the way I play the game. I really would love to have the chance to play against them again and prove to them that it was an isolated, temporary lapse," he added.
The assault looked as bad on the television and in real time as it does now. Johnson pleaded guilty as charged. The Australian press found it a tad amusing writing “After pleading guilty to striking, he copped a three year bad and securing his spot in Irish children’s nightmares for many more.”
What they said in Australia in 2014
The Australian attitude to the series has verged between apathy and an extreme desire to win. In 2014 musing on the return of the series one news outlet opined: “In case you hadn’t noticed (and chances are you hadn’t), the International Rules is back,” and went on to ask:
Should I care?
Fair question. There certainly weren’t many compelling reasons to tune into the last two iterations of the series.
In 2011, Australia was represented by a squad full of unknowns and youngsters yet to break through at AFL level and was soundly whupped on home soil.
Last year, a well-intended but misguided attempt to send an indigenous-only squad to Ireland resulted in more heavy defeats and a demand that the AFL take the concept more seriously.