Kicking the Sherrin across the world
AUSTRALIAN Rules football is growing
internationally like never before.
For proof, you don’t need to look far: Peter Bell
is the most famous South Korean playing the game, and the same could
be said of Ukraine’s Alex Jesaulenko. The Irish duo of Jim Stynes and
Tadhg Kennelly, who have thrilled the Australian crowds in recent
years, are also prime examples.
But it doesn’t stop there. Australia take on the
Irish annually in the International Rules series, many sides head off
overseas to play to an international crowd, and a squad of Indigenous
players will soon tour South Africa. And let’s not forget the World
Cup - which featured all ‘football’ nations except Australia - being
staged in Melbourne last year.
It should come as no surprise that one man has been
a constant figure in Australian Football’s overseas development:
Ronald Dale Barassi. For four decades the AFL legend has been pivotal
at spreading the word overseas; playing in Ireland and America in the
1960’s, leading Melbourne’s international experiment in the 1980’s,
and being a factor in Kennelly’s success.
Barassi’s overseas adventures began while he was
still playing at the top level. He led Melbourne to Honolulu and San
Francisco for exhibition games in the mid 1960’s, and even played for
an Australian side in communist Romania. However, the late 1960’s saw
the most memorable of his performances overseas.
Grand Final umpire and media personality Harry
Beitzel was enamoured by a team of Gaelic Footballers touring
Australia, and decided to train the best Australian Rules footballers
to compete in a hybrid rules match. But he only wanted one man to lead
“Being the entrepreneur he [Beitzel] is, he was
taken with the idea of organising for a team to go to Ireland and
play,” Barassi recalls. “I was captain-coach of Carlton at the time.
He offered me the same hat for the Irish football tour. The rest, as
they say, is history.”
The Aussies struggled to come to grips with the
hybrid code and lost their first game. “We didn’t look that flash”,
Barassi admits. They looked underdogs against Ireland’s best county
side, Meath, but in front of 20,000 supporters, the Australians won
before defeating Mayo the next week.
From there it was off the New York. The American
leg was limited to one match, but it was the toughest so far, and
Barassi almost had a misunderstanding with the law.
Barassi recalls that the skirmishes didn’t start as
much but “the referee didn’t show much control and allowed filthy
looks to blossom into nasty words and then onto pushing and shoving
and then onto biff and bash without doing much about it.”
That “biff and bash” forced Barassi and three
others to a local hospital. Barassi himself had suffered a broken
nose, but soon discovered that he’d been in a lopsided scuffle.
“Four of us, two from each side, met at the local
hospital for x-rays. Hassa Mann, the champion Melbourne centreman,
had a broken jaw. One little red-headed Irishman had cracked ribs. I
had a cracked nose given to me by a guy, Brendan Tumulty, who had a
broken thumb from thumping me. At the hospital, Brendan took off his
coat for the x-ray and there it was - a revolver in his police
However, Barassi’s run-in did little to harm
international relations, and he believes he made more friends than
enemies from the trip - even with Tumulty himself. “We have since
become very good friends. I’ve stayed at his home in New Jersey, and
Channel Nine brought him out to Australia for my This is Your Life
program in the late ‘70’s.”
Barassi would return overseas in an official role
in the 1980’s as coach of Melbourne, having more success - and
suffering no broken bones. “At the end of the 1981 season, four of us
went as an information-gathering group to Ireland, then onto America,
looking at the possibilities of whether young internationals could
become Aussie Rules footballers.”
They had no luck in America, but Ireland had a
plethora of stylish players who had the potential to become AFL
stars. Sean Wight and Paul Earley were the first to arrive, and both
showed talent at the new game. Wight performed well enough in the
under-19’s competition to make the Victorian squad, while Earley,
despite kicking a goal with his first kick, became extremely homesick
and returned to Ireland after one game. “I have no doubt he (Earley)
would have made it,” Barassi lamented. Despite this, the foundation
was already laid for the most successful import of all.
Barassi remembers with pride the Irish ruckman who
became an Australian star: “In 1984, Jim Stynes and James Fahey stood
out and were invited to Australia. Jim went on to become legendary
because of his Brownlow Medal in 1991 and claiming the all-time record
of 244 consecutive games played at VFL/AFL level.” Wight and Stynes
also played in Melbourne’s grand final side of 1988.
Today, the flow of Irish footballers to Australia
continues, while hybrid matches offer AFL footballers the chance to
represent their country. Barassi’s role in the development of each
cannot be underestimated.
However, he doesn’t believe that the violence which
marred last year’s International Rules series should become a major
feature of the sport - despite his misadventures in New York. In
fact, he fears that violence like that of Chris Johnson’s against
Irish youngster Phillip Jordan could put the sport’s desirability at
risk. “In case people think the hybrid game will always have clashes
like this, I’d say absolutely not”, Barassi warned. “If I’m wrong, we
should get rid of it [the competition], which would be a great shame.”
Not surprisingly, Barassi looks back on the success
of Kennelly with more joy. Barassi was on the Sydney board when
Kennelly joined the club, and has watched with interest as he worked
on his game to become one of the league’s best midfielders.
“Tadhg has been a revelation, particularly his
kicking, as he is now one of the best kicks in the premiership side,”
Barassi exclaimed. “I think he will be as good as Jimmy Stynes. And
wasn’t that Irish jig on the Grand Final podium just sensational?”