THE international rules experience requires an investment of faith and forbearance and after the dull starter served up in Limerick we enjoyed a heartier concluding course at Croke Park last night. Another poor and plodding encounter detonated in the final quarter with a roaring Irish recovery.
It was insufficient to save the Test or the series but at least it warmed the 61,000 in attendance and boosted the game's often fragile morale.
Ireland, having trailed by 17 points at one stage, stormed into a three-point lead with seven minutes still to play, but Australia reeled off the last few scores to claim all the night's takings. History had warned Ireland against excessive expectation going into the match: since the series resumed in 1998 only twice in 11 attempts has a first-Test deficit been overturned. Despite their herculean late effort, you can now make that two comebacks in 12, but there will have been much relief and consolation gleaned from the recovery and bold finish.
There will be a return series in Australia next year, then a gap year, and a further two series in the years immediately following. But for the game's spirits, last night needed to send out positive signals and all the surrounding noise and gimmickry could not hide a dreadfully poor contest for three-quarters of the time allotted.
A week ago, the international rules game looked alien to Gaelic instincts. Ireland were bereft of ideas, their movement gauche and hesitant, and the areas in which their strengths were expected to count showed up poorly. Last night followed the same mien until the last quarter. Until then, Australia mastered Ireland and kicked with greater aplomb.
Ireland manager Anthony Tohill had been optimistic as the challenge neared. But his hopes proved unfounded for a long spell as he watched his team struggling with the fundamentals and starved of leadership and coherence.
Having reduced an 18-point deficit to a more manageable seven in the first Test, they needed a bright start and got one. Bernard Brogan scored an early over and Steven McDonnell added a behind but Australia soon took command. At the end of the first 18-minute stretch the hosts trailed 9-16, 14 behind in the series, and already the lead looked unassailable.
In the second quarter it got worse for Ireland, with Australia at one point leading 23-11 and by 19 points overall. A great leap by Benny Coulter, who took the mark and scored a fine over, reduced the gap and for the first time the crowd found some voice. But it sounded hollow and proved short-lived. Having outscored Ireland 4-2 on overs in the first quarter, the Aussies outgunned their hosts 3-2 in the second quarter, leaving them 28-17 clear at the half-way point.
The only escape possible looked to be in scoring a six-pointer but Ireland lacked the creativity or penetration to trouble the Australian goal. Into the third quarter the cause looked lost when Australia moved 45-28 in front in the Test. A goal from James Kavanagh, the only one in the Test, gave Ireland renewed hope and by the close they were 10 adrift, 48-38.
They saved their best till last, hitting the first 14 points of the final quarter to go four clear. Michael Murphy kicked two overs in succession and Australia looked deeply concerned. Another three points would have earned a draw and retention of the Cormac McAnallen Cup but Australia managed to turn the momentum their way in the final minutes and finished with overs from Dane Swan and Brad Green, their top scorer on 16 points. Murphy shared Ireland's leading scorer distinction for the Test on six, alongside Kavanagh and Coulter.
Scorers: Australia -- A Goodes 7 (0-2-1); D Swan 10 (0-3-1); B Green 16 (0-4-4); L Montagna 4 (0-1-1); J Frawley 1 (0-0-1); K Jack 1 (0-0-1); T Banfield 8 (0-2-2); J McVeigh 4 (0-1-1); P Dangerfield 1 (0-0-1); E Betts 3 (0-1-0). Ireland -- B Brogan 5 (0-1-2); S McDonnell 5 (0-1-2); T Walsh 3 (0-0-3); C Begley 4 (0-1-1); B Coulter 6 (0-2-0); K McKernan 4 (0-1-1); B Murphy 4 (0-1-1), T Kennelly 3 (0-1-0), J Kavanagh 6 (1-0-0); S Cavanagh 5 (0-1-2), M Murphy 6 (0-2-0)
Australia: T Varcoe, B Gibbs, J McVeigh, D Cross, M Boyd, K Simpson, J Frawley, J Riewoldt, G Ibbotson, L Montagna, T Goldsack, S Gilbert, K Jack, T Banfield, B Green. Replacements: D Wojcinski, P Dangerfield, L Picken, E Betts, D Fletcher, D Swan, A Goodes, P Duffield.
Ireland: S Cluxton, C McKeever, F Hanley, B Donaghy, K McKernan, G Canty, K Reilly, T Walsh, C Begley, L Glynn, S McDonnell, T Kennelly, M Clarke, S Cavanagh, B Brogan. Replacements: B Coulter, B Murphy, J Kavanagh, D Goulding, S McDermott, .M Shields, P Keenan, M Murphy.
Referees: P McEnaney and B Rosebury