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 the squad.

“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 shoulder holster.”

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?”