Published 28/10/2006 | 00:11
Irish players facing a 'fight or flight' dilemma as Rulesseries hangs in the balance
MICK LYONS is mildly mortified by the surge of time.
He's almost quarter of a century older, but the same little sermons echo. Twenty-two years ago, in the low-lit misery of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, roughly eight thousand pairs of eyes rolled with disbelief as his limp frame was stretchered from the battlefield.
"I remember," he says, "I was just about to get the ball, actually had my hand on it and, next thing, BANG. I woke up in the dressing-room, the ceiling spinning."
Now, Mick was no shrinking violet. He was full-back on a Meath team that took pride in its ability to give and take punishment with manly equanimity. But, that day, the punch arrived without preface or context. Just mean and cheap and delivered from an opportunist's angle.
There was something almost pre-historic about that first Test in 1984. It just dissolved into a random eruption of Donnybrooks and squabbles, despite the fixture having no history. Maybe the only thing the Irish knew about their opponents was their lust for physicality. And the Aussies did not disappoint.
They were, of course, coached by John Todd, a man who - two years later - would brand the Irish "a bunch of wimps". Todd, in many ways, set the template for the hybrid game.
Pugnacious and adversarial, he seemed to view it, essentially, as an opportunity for the Australians to push their weight around against earnest amateurs.
It didn't work in '86 when Kevin Heffernan chose to go to war, deliberately ratcheting the aggression factor even higher, introducing an Irish battlecry of 'Fíor Gael' (True Irish) at any hint of trouble as the visitors, having lost the opening Test in Perth, rallied to comfortably win the second and third in Melbourne and Adelaide respectively.
To this day, members of that Irish squad speak in glowing terms of Heffernan's hardness and tactical nous. The bullies, you see, got their dues.
There have been ten Test series played since (the game was dormant from '90 to '98), each country winning five. In aesthetic terms, the spectacle has improved. But it is still underpinned by largely primitive energy.
The ugly, straight-arm tackle with which Australian co-captain Chris Johnson floored Tyrone's Philip Jordan last year wasn't exactly an act at odds with the prevailing climate of that second Test. It came just a week after the Aussies had broken the magical one hundred point barrier when trouncing Pete McGrath's team at the Subiaco Oval.
Having humiliated their visitors on the scoreboard, they now seemed driven to belittle them physically.
It was all so depressing and dangerous and, maybe above all, predictable. The Australian tourists of '04 were soundly ridiculed in Ireland when they lost the first Test by 36 points. One commentator likened them to "a bunch of waiters over on a stag weekend". They were described variously as "meek" and "pathetic" and "spineless" by other sections of the Irish media.
Perhaps we were just pining for their other face. It is a face that appears to us almost cyclically now. Three years ago in Perth, Tipperary's Declan Browne was put out of football for six months by a brutal assault in a warm-up game. The perpetrator had the gall to claim afterwards that his 'challenge' would have been permissible in Aussie Rules.
As Browne remembers it: "It happened so quick. I just saw this fella coming for me. He had his elbow up and his knee up. And it was just kind of lights out after that. I went down holding my jaw. But then, when I tried to get up, I had no feeling in my leg. I knew I was in trouble. I had pain coming from everywhere. The impact tore two or three muscles in my thigh and I had 12 inches of internal bleeding. I was completely vulnerable at the moment he hit me, because I was watching the ball. Probably my own naivety. Didn't actually play again until the following National League."
Jordan's recall of the Johnson hit last year is remarkably similar, not just to Browne's, but to Lyons's recall of what happened him 22 years ago. It is, in essence, a recurring picture.
"I remember just trying to avoid his tackle so as not to get caught in possession," says the Tyrone wing-back. "Next thing, I was lying on the ground. That was more or less it. I suppose we're just not used to the sneaky stuff. It was to all intents and purposes off the ball."
The raft of new rules nourishes hope for a more peaceable series this time, but you can't adjust or calibrate national psyche. Australia's way in sport isn't to outwit an opponent, but to overpower them. To grind them into the mud, then chuckle at their discomfort like laughing kookaburras.
Clearly, they feel at a disadvantage with the round ball and it becomes a violation of everything they stand for to be taken apart by a bunch of amateurs. No bureaucratic tinkering will ever subdue the fundamental issue at stake in the Australian psyche. They must avoid getting sand kicked in their eyes.
This is a pity, because much of their football in last year's first Test in Perth (they won 100-64) hinted at a sense of cerebral and physical harmony with the hybrid game that was utterly compelling. Of all the Tests won and lost since '84, the Australian performance at the Subiaco Oval last October probably came closer to greatness than any.
Yet, ultimately, the series will be remembered for the high elbows and low morals of the second Test. In the end, they could not help themselves.
It made for insufferable viewing. The Irish, effectively, being beaten up by a side for whom the chief perpetrator - Johnson - was then allowed take to the podium to collect the Cormac McAnallen trophy. It felt like having your house burgled twice in the same evening.
Lyons wasn't alone in the anger he felt beginning to bubble.
"That tackle your man (Johnson) made last year, I was actually disappointed in our fellas that someone didn't take him to task," observes the former Meath great. "If I was playing in a team like that and I hadn't a couple of lads who would sort him out, I wouldn't bother playing again in it.
"Now I know that's totally against the rules of the game and all that. People will be horrified to hear me say that. But I nearly got sick looking at it. You're a team. You have your fallings-out or whatever, but you're all looking towards the same goal at the end of the day. Ye're either together or ye're not.
"If a couple of lads stood up for themselves out there last year, they would have come home heroes. Heroes. I mean I wouldn't encourage dirt whatsoever.
"It's fine going for a ball, knowing that you're going to get a bang from a shoulder. But going for a ball, knowing that you might get a bang on the side of the head or the neck, that's totally different.
"Your shoulder is there to protect all your body. Getting a bang above that is a different story."
If we are honest, Lyons is articulating precisely what most of us felt at the time. The anger of seeing the bully go unchecked. Yet, clearly, the series has little future if Ireland habitually accept the Aussie invitation for a scrap. Short-term, viewing figures might soar, of course. Long-term, the game would end up in the bin.
Browne suggests, not unreasonably, that player-safety must be the imperative, yet he articulates, too, the quandary that the Irish encounter.
"If the Irish lads retaliate, we're the worst in the world," says Browne. "It's a vicious circle. We retaliate, some lad gets sent off and the whole series is up in a heap again. So you can't protect yourself almost because the series will be in doubt. I suppose we're kind of brainwashed to cut down on the tough stuff and just keep our discipline.
"Definitely, Chris Johnson deserved some kind of response from the Irish players last year. What he did was cynical, disgusting really. He just happened to get lucky that Philip Jordan wasn't seriously hurt. He was blessed that he didn't break Philip's jaw.
"Remember, we still have to go to work when it's all over. The Aussies don't get away with it in their own game, so they should they be trying it on us? To me, Johnson should have been banned for good. So to see him collecting the Cup was a huge insult.
"The bottom line with this game is that we have to be safe, no matter what. There's no point playing it if we're going to be out for six months or a year afterwards."
Jordan, ironically, flies to Australia today for a holiday planned many months ago. He will be in transit for the Salthill game, but plans to watch next week's second Test from behind enemy lines. In different circumstances, he says that he would undoubtedly have submitted himself for this year's trial matches. The incident with Johnson hasn't diluted his enthusiasm for the hybrid game one iota.
In fact, Lyons and Browne are unequivocal too. The series is worth fighting for.
"Probably one of the greatest honours I've had in my career," says Jordan.
Lyons? "The great thing is that you get to play with people who, for years, you've been trying to plan their downfall. And you come to realize they don't have two heads!".
And Browne? "It's a huge honour for someone like me or say the Waterford lads or the Leitrim lads to be involved with the lads from the bigger counties."
The flip arguments? "I'd say a repeat of last year will finish it," according to Jordan. "If it's like that again, I won't watch anyway," says Lyons. Both could be quotes harvested from '84, when this problem child was first delivered in an atmosphere of outrage.
Three years ago, John Todd was unapologetic about his legacy to the series, declaring simply "Take the controversy out of sport and where's the folklore?" Remember, 8,000 attended that inaugural test in Cork 22 years ago. Next Sunday, 78,000 are expected in Croke Park.
Perhaps he just knew his market.