BY now you may know that this column is not a lover of the International Rules. The Aussies may have toned down their imperious behaviour in recent series, but they have left a memory of animosity from the past deep enough to sense that it is still never far from the surface.
It must be difficult for them to hold their heads when they realise that much of the time they are being outshone by a bunch of amateurs, upstaged by guys who have to get up to go to work every morning.
What keeps the tests going is the enjoyment the players receive from participating in a game that is at odds with their own traditions, trying to endow their respective games with a credible international dimension.
They have been trying a long time to make it attractive. In the early years of the trials, which commenced back in the sixties, Ireland were no match for the Aussies. The gap in muscle and fitness was overwhelming.
As Ireland adjusted to what was needed to keep up, Australia’s heavy-handed tactics led to intermittent brawls with the Aussies bragging loudly about winning the tests… and the fights.
People flocked to the venues in both countries not so much to watch the mongrel game they were trying to fashion, as to exult in the fracas, the free-for-alls in which punches and kicks were exchanged freely and recklessly. The fall-out brought an end to the experiment.
Some years back when common sense prevailed and discipline was assured both sides decided to try again. In Australia the concentration in selecting a team was placed on football, not on brute strength alone.
At the same time Gaelic football in Ireland had made rapid strides. Physical development side by side with modern strategies had raised standards to professional heights never experienced before.
Now they were able to compete with their neighbours down below. They were on a level playing pitch. Football was the big winner and their tussles were positive and exciting.
Two years ago Aidan O’Shea was the star of the test which Ireland won narrowly at home.
On Sunday he captained the side. And in the searing heat the Breaffy man played a captain’s part. Brendan Harrison and Chris Barrett were also prominent. But a hand injury to Pearse Hanley in the first quarter which forced the Mayo man to retire, together with the vomiting bug that felled three other members, weakened the side considerably.
The heat was also a disadvantage and the Aussies ensured the size of the pitch, smaller than Croke Park, fitted their qualities.
But their passing and accuracy with the round ball has dramatically narrowed whatever gap Ireland exposed between them. And if anything they outshone the Irish on Sunday in that aspect of the game . . . high fielding and fast delivery.
Planting big ball-winning players up front paid dividends.
Struggling with the intensity of the heat Ireland did not have a squad big enough to benefit fully from the rotation system.
In some previous tests Australia paid little attention to the role of their goalkeeper and learned from their mistake. On this occasion goalkeeper Brendan Goddard was their star, foiling Ireland on several scoreable occasions.
Hand passing is confined to six successive transfers, and at times you wonder could Gaelic football benefit from the excessive use of that tactic especially in the final minutes of games when teams are trying to hold onto a lead.
Monaghan’s Conor McManus was Ireland’s leading scorer in the first game but they trail by 63/53, and look less likely to retain the title when they meet again in Perth next week.
Mitchels show signs of gradual improvement
IT was a big improvement on their performance against Mohill, but Castlebar Mitchels will know that it will require a deeper search into their chest of riches to win back the Connacht crown.
The seminal moment of their semi-final with Tourlestrane came in the 51st minute when James Durcan found the room and the acceleration to cleave open a tiring defence and lay on the ball for Danny Kirby to find the net and wrap up the game.
They spent a while figuring out that move. It wasn’t easy because of Tourlestrane’s obsession with defence. Most of the time all of the Sligo men with the exception of one or two forwards were back foiling the Mitchels’ efforts.
Occasionally they broke dangerously. They were tough in the tackle and they started against the wind brightly. But because they found the Mitchels’ defence impenetrable and the chances of the goal they needed as a cushion against the wind after the break deserting them, their ambition had taken a knock by half-time.
Eight of the Mitchels’ thirteen points came from frees. David Stenson, their crackshot, got five of his six points from dead-ball situations. The other three came from Neil Douglas all from distance.
It was Stenson’s accuracy that kept the Mitchels afloat against the strong wind. But there was some sterling defending too. And Ger McDonagh, Donie Newcombe and Ray O’Malley were in the thick of it. In fact all of the defenders including Johnny Maughan and Paddy Durcan shielded Rory Byrne’s goal with awesome determination.
Most times those of us selecting a man of the match tend to overlook the performances of defenders. On Sunday Danny Kirby was given the nod and the manner in which he took his goal, and indeed his all round contribution deservedly singled him out for the honour.
But any one of those defenders could have qualified. Under stiff pressure in confining Tourlestrane to seven first-half points all of the backs soaked up whatever the Sligo champions dished out.
And in the second half when the opposition began to run out of steam, their play becoming somewhat disjointed, it was the finesse of the Mitchels that swung it.
When James Durcan and Stenson nosed the Mitchels into the lead for the first time a few minutes before the interval the Sligo champions showed courage in clawing back that lead to seven points apiece before the break.
And when Brian Egan swung them into the lead with one of his excellent points from frees seconds into the second half they seemed to have the character to make it a close, entertaining semi-final.
For a further thirty minutes, however, they failed to score again. And the difference between them was clearly evident in the way the Mitchels’ Aidan Walsh and Barry Moran won midfield. Not with any extraordinary fielding insight, but, simply, by breaking the ball to a loose colleague.
Tourlestrane did not appear to tumble to that tactic, and as their defence yielded to splendid points by Kirby, Paddy Durcan, Stenson and Douglas, the speed of James Durcan nine minutes from the end caught them wrong-footed. And Kirby did the rest.