Eugene McGee: Skill deficit puts series in jeopardy
Published 24/10/2011 | 05:00
The many detractors of the International Rules series between Ireland and Australia are never short of reasons for condemning the matches -- to the extent that you might imagine there is little or no interest in the whole thing, even in Ireland.
That's not true, of course, as more than 60,000 people have attended the games at Croke Park in recent years.
While all sorts of views from the reasonable to the frivolous have been produced to argue that the series should be scrapped, very few of the detractors even try to admit that some of the biggest problems have been shown up among the ranks of the Ireland players.
Of course, as staunch Irish people, we all like to discredit opposing teams by casting aspersions on them rather than taking a closer look at the composition and actual performance of our own team.
My main interest in watching the two games in Australia over the next couple of weeks will be to observe how these games will highlight the continuing decline in the natural skills of Gaelic football.
In the past few contests between the teams, the quality of performance by many of the Ireland players has been truly pathetic -- none more so than last year in the first game at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.
I wrote then that at times a large section of the Irish following was openly laughing at the pathetic attempts by some of our top Irish players at kicking the ball over the crossbar. After only about 10 days of practising, many Australian players showed themselves to be more adept at scoring three-pointers than some of the biggest stars in Gaelic football.
That really drove home a stark message to those who wish to know how far Gaelic football has departed from some of its most important roots.
Scoring points from play used to be second nature to nearly all inter-county footballers but the recent games against Australia show that this is largely a forgotten art.
Maybe 'forgotten' is not the right word because there was nothing careless about the decision to largely abandon point-scoring from play.
It was the managers, in the main, who decided that attempting points from 30-50 metres even when unmarked was too risky for the modern 'safety-first' approach. Instead of attempting long-range scores, the players are encouraged to engage in yet another orgy of short-passing until they can almost see the colours of the goalkeeper's eyes before attempting a score.
This lack of moral courage was shown up by the 'have-a-go' attitude of the Aussies who kicked far more 'points' than Ireland, even with the totally unfamiliar round ball.
Possibly the two best scores in Gaelic football this year were kicked from about 50 metres by Donegal's Kevin Cassidy against Kildare and Dublin's Kevin Nolan, whose point levelled the game late on in the All-Ireland final against Kerry.
It would be nice to think that these two fine examples of point-scoring played a huge part in each player receiving an All Star award last Friday. I will await with interest to see the number of such points scored by the GAA players in Australia.
But there were other skills of current usage in Gaelic football that were also better perfected by the Australians in recent years. The pace and dexterity at which they deploy the handpass as a means of speeding up the game is a good example.
In Gaelic football, on the other hand, the handpass -- used, as is mainly the case, with a sequence of almost static passes up to seven or eight times -- slows down play as opposed to the common belief that it actually speeds up the game.
The speed at which the Aussies lay off the ball by hand or foot is in sharp contrast to the slowing-up processes often used by Gaelic football players, such as hopping the ball, solo-running without purpose etc. These Aussies don't hang around with the ball.
Last year in Limerick and Croke Park, Irish players showed the necessary level of all-out commitment for an international contest for fewer than 30 of the 80 playing minutes in total. Other than that they played second fiddle.
In the forthcoming games, that has to change if further humiliation is not to be heaped on Gaelic football.
A late flurry of Irish scores towards the end of both games last year probably saved the series for now but, with so much effort and time having been devoted to it this year, Anthony Tohill and his selectors need to take a strong line with the players as regards their attitude to playing against footballers who are faster, fitter and stronger.
Last year, too many of Ireland's players seemed content to admire the physical and athletic qualities of their opponents. That is certainly not the Australians' approach to sporting contests and such an attitude from Irish players in this series would leave most Australians apathetic about the future of these games.
I was abroad last week when the great Peter McDermott of Meath passed away and was sorry not to be able to mark the occasion.
By coincidence, Peter was the man, along with Australian PR guru Harry Beitzel, who originated the Ireland-Australia series which was sensational in its audacity when then All-Ireland champions Meath played Australia in Croke Park in the late 1960s.
But, of course, Peter was best known for his extraordinary GAA activities, such as being captain, selector and County Board secretary in 1954 when Meath won their second All-Ireland. He also refereed two All-Ireland finals.
Peter was a key figure in putting the finishing touches to Down's first All-Ireland victory in 1960 and also one of the original advocates of proper coaching systems in the GAA at the Gormanston gathering in 1964.
But, above all, he was an absolute gentleman and will be best remembered for that. I will miss his often timely communications about GAA matters he wished to have aired, invariably with great common sense.