The Australians struggled with the round ball.
The Australians struggled with the round ball.
The lop-sided nature of the latest International Rules series leaves the GAA and the AFL with much to ponder, but once Ireland matched the Aussies’ athleticism, the result was never going to be in doubt, writes MICHAEL HANNON.
The International Rules series finished with a whimper last weekend in croke park. From a Cavan perspective it was great to see the first test in Breffni Park. It would’ve have been better if we had a playing representative on the panel, with all indications being that Cian Mackey and David Givney were close to making the final squad — however, it wasn’t to be.
In Nicholas Walsh, we did have a native representative on the coaching staff, and for that first test in Breffni he and the management team had Ireland so well prepared that the game was something of a non-event.
The Australian decision to send a team comprising of only indigenous players handicapped the touring party in that first test. Of the panel that togged out in Breffni Park, only three had previously played in the international Rules series. Between them they had eight caps.
In comparison, the Irish panel had nine players with previous experience of the hybrid game and Sean Cavanagh alone had 10 caps to his name. The contrast in experience showed, too, in the way the Irish team settled that night. Racing into a first quarter lead of 17-4, they increased that advantage to 28-9 by the half-time break. Professional pride kicked in for the Australians during the third quarter before Ireland finished strongly again to head into last Saturday night’s test with a 22-point advantage.
The first test, while disappointing as a spectacle, did raise some interesting questions about the touring Australian panel and management team. How much were they capable of learning from the first night’s experience? How interested were they in actually putting on a performance? And perhaps more contentiously, had the AFL done their league and the series a disservice by restricting selection to indigenous players? Well, we got a few clear answers to those questions on the floodlit Croke Park pitch last Saturday night.
This series was traditionally about pitting a group of professional footballers unfamiliar with a round ball against a team of amateur athletes trying to come to terms with the greater pace and physicality of their opponents. But as I flipped through the match programme and read player profiles of the Australian team, I couldn’t help but notice how small and light the majority of their players were.
This is, of course, relatively speaking, but for the first time in my memory, player for player, the Irish team seemed both taller and heavier. But for the rare exception, the prototype of the indigenous player in the AFL would appear to be a smaller, lighter athlete.
In the media, we heard talk of how quick their players were, but when the series started we didn’t see anything exceptional from the visiting party; nothing that Ireland couldn’t comfortably deal with, in any case.
A few years back when this series was a closer-fought affair, the punditry at half-time from the RTE studio used to always revolve around the same point. Colm O’Rourke wondered out loud how amazing it was that Australia had, in the space of a few short weeks, managed to master the skills of a round gaelic football so quickly; cue a jibe directed at the footballers of Mayo or Kildare who were famous for racking up high tallies of wides at the time.
The point-taking of the Australians in particular was superior to the Irish team, who were hanging on in the contest thanks to the one or two six-pointers we would have scored. And even then, continued the logic, if Australia had any type of a goalkeeper to stick in nets at all, something they don’t have in the AFL, then we probably would’ve been so far out of game we might as well give up.
This line of argument used to always irritate me because the pundits, I felt, were sorely missing the key point. As I watched those games, the abiding memories I had were of Irish players kicking balls under pressure, rushing shots and, when in possession, always being just fractions of a second away from getting hammered with a tackle.
The Australians on those teams always seemed to be pulling up, in space, steadying themselves, before kicking the ball over the bar. Plain and simple, their superior athleticism was creating, for them, easier opportunities. And contrary to the punditry of the time, it was in fact Ireland’s superior skill set that was allowing them to hang on.
Those games had a familiar pattern. The longer they wore on, the better the Australians got, as their superior fitness would tell in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it was enough to win the game, sometimes it wasn’t. But it was interesting. Was it as good as gaelic football? Not in my opinion, not to watch anyway, but it was probably great to play, certainly the tackle being so well defined, adhered to, and easy to referee showing up a glaring weakness in our own game.
With the panel the Australians brought this year, and indeed selected for the last series, they surrendered the big advantage they had over the Irish. In the intervening years the way Gaelic footballers prepare has also changed greatly.
Thankfully the rugby-style strength and conditioning routines have been replaced with programmes that are more suited to developing players to play our native game. Players are less top-heavy, and have more strength in the lower body. When the most genetically gifted of our athletes apply themselves the results are truly spectacular. Jack McCaffrey, for instance, was so superior to everyone else in the series in terms of speed that when in full flight he could induce gasps of incredulity from spectators.
In contrast, the Australian game, with bigger pitches and longer playing time, tends to lend itself to the development of athletes with great endurance. If you don’t specifically pick players suited to the hybrid game then what you get is a 100-point defeat like we had last week.
Enda King, the retired Cavan Gaels midfielder, was the Irish team physiotherapist for the series out in Australia a few years ago. Enda, who also spent time studying and working in Australia, was team physio for a DIT Sigerson team I was involved with and spoke with me once about the perception the Australians had of the Irish Gaelic football players. The one thing they all remarked on was the size of the irish players legs.
The Aussies were fascinated with how much bigger they were than their own. Good old Macho Australian insecurity, I guess. What type of training did Irish players do, they wondered? Of course the answer wasn’t the type of training but rather the nature of the game. Their own game being so much more endurance-based than ours meant their lower limb musculature mirrored that of an 800m runner, while the cream of Irish football talent mirrored that of a 200m or 400m sprinter.
That’s not to say there aren’t players in the AFL with big powerful legs. There are loads of them, just not enough of them among the indigenous All Stars, so many of those players are the prototype link player. Constant running is what they bring. I guess the analogy I’m searching for would be this: as good an out-half as Ronan O’Gara was, 15 Ronan O’Garas wouldn’t win a rugby match.
The abiding memories that the current series leaves me with is of Irish players pulling up in space and sending in quality ball to their inside forward line. Once we were able to match the Australians for athleticism, then the superior skillset was always going to come to the fore. In contrast, the Australians, unable to create time and space for themselves, found the ball repeatedly skidding off their boot in all different directions as they were forced to execute kicks at a speed greater than their skill level allowed.
After the end of the second test, the inevitable question being asked was whether there exists a future for the series. Public interest is waning. If it’s not competitive, then what’s the point? I do know one thing — any cup that carries the name of Cormac McAnallen deserves a decent stage.
Much to ponder for both associations, then.
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