The International Rules series is a topic of conversation that divides Gaels across Ireland.
Since its inception in 1967, when All-Ireland champions, Meath, took on an Australian-select, the hybrid game has split opinions due to its robust nature and history of violent flashpoints.
Australia’s 2006 tour of Ireland stands out as one year where the future of the games hung in the balance after Irish manager Sean Boylan called for the series to be scrapped after Graham Geraghty was stretchered off Croke Park in the second test.
By then, the cross-code game was well established, however, it turns out that controversy has followed the game since the early years of test matches between Ireland and Australia.
Speaking to John Scally as part of his book: ‘Great GAA Rivalries: Unforgettable Showdowns’, Pat Spillane spoke of the controversy that surrounded Ireland’s 1986 tour down under.
It wasn’t just on-field matters that caused division as controversy ensued before the tour had begun when Kerry legend, Mick O’Dwyer, was passed over for the role as Ireland manager.
“There was controversy before we went to Australia when the Dublin coach Kevin Heffernan was appointed as tour manager ahead of Mick O’Dwyer,” begins Spillane.
“Micko is the most successful Gaelic football coach of all time and he has never managed the International Rules team, which is extraordinary.”
While news of Micko’s omission caused mild controversy, Spillane recalls how the tour came alive and gripped the entire nation when the Irish team were branded as “wimps” by the then-Australian manager, John Todd.
“What really made the tour come alive was when the manager of the Australian team, John Todd, described the touring side as “wimps” following complaints about the “excessively robust play” of the Australian players. His remarks provoked a storm of outrage not just among the Irish team but also back at home in Ireland.
“It was a huge story throughout the country. It wasn’t quite as big as Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy during Saipan, but it was pretty close. Todd’s comments were taken as a slur on the Irish character and, as a result, people who had no interest in the game back home in Ireland became fascinated by the series.
“Although people constantly bemoan the violence on the pitch, a lot of people love watching the games because of the physical contact. The controversies and the violence generated brought the games to everyone’s attention, and I guarantee you that when there is a massive interest in the series it is because people are wondering if there will be more violence.”
1986 was the first of two stints for Spillane as part of the International Rules team, with the second coming a year later. The eight-time All-Ireland winner described the experience as a “tremendous honour”, however, he admitted that it was a culture shock for many when first tackled by the Aussie Rules players.
“From my point of view, it was a tremendous honour to be invited to play for my country and I was delighted with the chance to be part of the experiment to give an international outlet to Gaelic football.
“Of course, it did come as a shock when you were on the ball that an Aussie player could come up and knock you to the ground by any means necessary – and keep you pinned down.”
However, according to Spillane, what is arguably the best thing about the International Rules series is how it gives players from all across the country a chance to showcase their talents.
“It is great for players from so-called “weaker counties” in particular to get the chance to play alongside the cream of the GAA talent and to showcase their talents to the nation. Take a player like Westmeath’s Spike Fagan, who could really show the country how good a player he was on live television when he played for Ireland.”