Eugene Mcgee: Final flourish fails to hide flaws in selection policy
Published 01/11/2010 | 05:00
Thankful for small mercies -- that's about the best description of the second Ireland-Australia game on Saturday night.
Things had been looking really grim at the end of the second quarter, when, on the aggregate score, the Aussies were ahead by no less than 18 points. But, belatedly, many of the Ireland players began to show a bit of fighting spirit for the crowd of over 60,000 and in the final quarter, a lot of GAA pride was restored with a flurry of Ireland scores and and no reply at all from the Aussies until the closing stages.
This was the only period of the two games when Ireland had their opponents genuinely worried, with the power of Sean Cavanagh and Benny Coulter and the late arrival of Donegal's Michael Murphy contributing a total of 18 points in the final 20 minutes.
As with all close contests decided by a late flourish of scores, there was plenty of wishful thinking in the immediate aftermath about what MIGHT have happened, but in Ireland's case, that is a luxury they did not deserve. In reality, they were well beaten in six of the eight quarters in this contest and the late flourish in each game merely added to the frustration afterwards.
Why could these superstars of Gaelic football not produce their own personal skills, allied to a strong team commitment, for longer than about 20 minutes of the 144 minutes played in the two games?
Spectators at both venues were poorly served by the Ireland standard-bearers for the majority of both contests, but the grand finale in each game did have a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of these clashes as tests of sporting ability among teams from different football codes. Heavy defeats for Ireland in both matches would have been just as serious for the long-term future as the violence that almost killed the series off after the Croke Park game a few years ago.
One could argue that we have now witnessed the two extremes of this hybrid form of football -- in previous years, we endured some naked savagery that outraged anybody who watched it, and clearly that was not going to have a future. After Ireland's success in Australia in 2008 and this year's version, we have gone to the other extreme with an anaemic, non-physical style that could have equally negative consequences for the long-term future, simply because the punters in both countries will turn their backs on the quality of football on offer.
The importance of Saturday's final-quarter resurgence by Ireland lies in the impression of positivity it created as we look to the future. Granted, it was only a brief flirtation with the 'real thing', but at least the fans got a chance to express their nationalism towards the end and obviously responded to what was happening on the field.
There are several lessons to be learned by the GAA for the future.
The manner of selecting players for Ireland needs a change in approach and the fact that leading players are left outside the tent just because they have club commitments, or the like, is wrong.
The Australians showed the way by picking players specifically suited to the International Rules game. Ireland must do the same -- regardless of availability for training. Players like Paul Galvin, Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper should be included and an environment created that will facilitate that.
The same applies to players -- like Cork's Noel O'Leary this year -- who seem to lose out because they are involved in the closing stages of the All-Ireland. Because of their high level of fitness, this should be seen as a plus, rather than an excuse for omitting such individuals.
The Irish team should also have at least one warm-up game in Ireland prior to their first game with the Aussies, home or away.
The differences between how the AFL and Gaelic players operate in these games are quite obvious, so their is no rocket science involved in matching them. The Aussies' speed in laying off the ball by hand or foot is far superior to Ireland, who often seem to deliberately slow the play by hopping the ball, solo-running, etc -- of course, these are also flaws in Gaelic football, but few 'experts' concede this. The degeneration of Gaelic football from a primarily kicking game to an overwhelmingly handpassing one is disgusting to the vast majority of GAA followers, but this policy is being ruthlessly driven by most team managers at county and, especially, club level.
So, is it any wonder that thousands of fans were openly laughing at the pathetic attempts by leading Irish players to kick the ball over the crossbar in the two Rules games? By contrast, several Aussie players showed remarkable skill with their point-scoring after about 10 days of practice. Gaelic players are no longer encouraged to shoot points from 20 to 50-yard range like the Aussies did, that's obvious. We saw the product of this approach over the course of the two games.
Australia's organisation levels were way ahead of the Irish, too. Every aspect had been planned meticulously, the use of the interchange system was perfected and when a player was substituted, he usually stayed pitchside and kept limbering up, so as to be ready for the next time he was needed. Irish subs seemed, in the main, to sit on bench.
These are the sort of little things that make the difference and which Ireland must learn if they are to seriously match and beat the new-style, football-orientated Australians. It is a challenge for the people in charge next year, and hopefully they will learn from this year's model.