independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Colm Keys: Hybrid game just too much effort for very limited return

Ireland's star man, Zach Tuohy

Early in the third quarter of this first Test the ever-industrious Paul Flynn kicked an over to push Ireland into a very commanding 32-9 lead.

Did the 17,567 crowd encourage their team to press on for the 'kill' at that stage, the pursuit of an annihilation of the visitors?

Of course they didn't. The International Rules doesn't work that way.

Privately, many would have wished for the next score or three to come from the Australians, for no other desire than to see a contest.

What kind of international sport generates that reaction from what should be a partisan crowd?

Perhaps it says it all about a game that never seems to be out of crisis mode in recent times. It has always needed far too much effort for a limited return. And with the effort diminishing much more on one side, the return has witnessed a parallel decline.

In Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday night, not even the most strident proponents of the hybrid game could take much out of it.

It just didn't entertain, it didn't hold the attention or fascination of the crowd in any way, which is a pity because the theory of two indigenous field games coming together once a year (twice in three years now) still holds strong.

There were isolated moments when there was engagement. A mark from Michael Murphy or Aidan O'Shea under some pressure or a scintillating burst from Jack McCaffrey drew ripples of applause.

But they were rare breaks in the clouds. For the most part the stand and terraces resounded to a hum that suggested the people's focus was largely elsewhere.

The novelty factor has worn off. The professional-versus-amateur dynamic that held it together through its best years from 1998 to 2003 has been eroded.

The quality of the Australian team over the last two series has been poor and into the bargain they lacked sufficient edge here.

It was only when the teams lined up for the respective national anthems that you got a sense of the level of physical parity that was to follow.

Lance Franklin apart, Ireland were bigger and taller, not necessarily stronger. But the yawning physical gap that has surfaced so often in the past wasn't there and it was reflected in the exchanges.

To Ireland's credit, their work on the tackle was impressive, following on from last year's series in Australia.

At one stage in the last quarter, O'Shea crunched Eddie Betts and, in one-to-one scraps for possession, Ireland gained far more success than in any other recent Test.

Too often an Irish player could stand his ground under a dropping ball in the knowledge that it would still be resting in his hands. Whatever about Australian deficiencies in kicking a round ball, getting hold of it was never previously a problem. On Saturday night it was.

Australia improved when they went 'man to man' in the second half and they will likely improve again next Saturday night.

But we may well have witnessed the fourth last International Rules Test of this generation in Breffni Park.

It still has another turn in Australia next year but, beyond doubt, there appears to be no great appetite to sustain it.

The GAA hierarchy have already discussed the potential conclusion of the series after 2014.

Decision

It couldn't have sat well this summer that they only found out about the AFL's decision to send an indigenous team when it came into the public domain in Australia.

Maybe there are areas around the rules that could improve the competitiveness again and tilt the balance of advantage away from Ireland. Goalkeeping is a problem for the Australians, as much for restarting now as shot-stopping. Are goals still an essential part of the package? Could the deployment of natural soccer skills among many of the Irish players be diluted where they would only be allowed one touch before having to attempt to play it with the hand?

It is sometimes easy to forget that, although the series will be 30 years old next year, only 37 Tests have now been played between them. That doesn't leave much time for adaption of skills or propagation of new methods.

But the GAA doesn't need the international link as much as it previously felt it did. Anything to be gained from a liaison with the AFL in terms of interaction and information-sharing has been gained by now. The AFL looks like it has already come to that conclusion anyway.

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