IRELAND held the upper grip in last night's first International Rules Test against Australia but they let momentum slip in the third quarter to keep the series alive for next Saturday's finale at Croke Park.
With 13 minutes left in this game Steven Motlop had a chance to bring his side within just five points of the Irish. Amazingly, with no one in goal and a free shot, he blazed against the post. It was indicative of how his team struggled with the round ball all night long, but by the end of the game, as has been the tradition of the visitors, they began to get to grips with proceedings.
The Irish could have been way out of sight but instead the second Test has everything to play for, even after Kevin McLoughlin's late goal gave the home side a comfortable lead once more in a game that lacked intensity and bite.
One of the biggest worries the Irish team will have this week will be the fitness of Aidan Walsh, the vice-skipper who went off with a nasty knee injury near the end of the game. After such a rollicking season of action – a roller-coaster ride from start to finish in both hurling and football – a crowd of 17, 657 turned up to Breffni Park in the hope of one last spin on the merry-go-round. Sadly, they got nothing like the intensity they witnessed this summer, as Ireland quickly established their greater grasp of the game and led Australia by 28-9.
It's an easy series to criticise – we moan when the game is loaded with violence and then we whinge when there are no hits. Well, that was the scenario yesterday evening; not one hit of note was put in between the teams.
It was probably the first time in the history of the hybrid game that Ireland fielded the bigger and more physical team. They looked much bigger and more powerful than their opponents, who were brimming with speed and agility but lacked presence under the dropping ball.
With them not relishing the physical side of things Ireland quickly crawled into a lead, skipper Michael Murphy kicking two overs before a stream of Irish scorers followed suit.
The home team looked calm, composed and assured and played their way out of defence at their ease. The likes of Ciaran Kilkenny sprayed some fantastic diagonal balls across the pitch and in defence they looked totally unflustered. Meanwhile, as fast and agile as the Aussies were, even they struggled to keep up with Jack McCaffrey, the rampaging Dublin half-back.
After the first quarter the result was almost beyond doubt with Ireland ahead 16 – 4 and that lead had extended to 28-9 by the half-time break.
Motlop was one of the few Aussies to adjust; he foraged around their forward division hunting for breaks and picking up loose ball, shooting seven points in the first 36 minutes to keep his side in the hunt. But by that stage only two of his team-mates had joined him on the scoresheet – Lance Franklin being another to impress with a classy over to leave his team trailing 32-12 after 42 minutes.
Ireland had a golden chance to wrap the game up around that stage but Sean Cavanagh took too much out of the ball and saw his effort smothered by Ashley McGrath. To their credit the visitors tried to expand a little and they used the short, interchange game very well in the third quarter with frequent use of the handpass.
But their kick-passing let them down and they found it hard to judge the bounce of the ball, which really hampered them going forward.
Just as they were finding their feet a little, a Zach Tuohy goal killed the game off as a contest. The Portlaoise and Carlton man burst through the spine of the Aussies defence with serious speed and chipped a deft finish past a stranded McGrath to make it 38-14. Ciaran Sheehan could have added another two minutes later but his shot flashed wide instead and out for a behind.
With the life now squeezed out of the game, Australia's goal was most welcome for the crowd. A mistake in the Irish defence let Jake Neade in for a six-pointer and he showed great composure with his finish. Lewis Jetta hit an over soon after to leave it 39-23 on the scoreboard. Alwyn Davey did something similar just after as the tourists enjoyed by far their best spell of the game.
Scorers – Ireland: M Murphy 7
(0 goals-2 overs-1 behind), Z Tuohy 6 (1-0-0), R Munnelly 7 (0-1-4), C Begley 3 (0-1-0), K McLoughlin (1-0-0), C McManus 6 (0-2-0), P Flynn 4 (0-1-1), J McCaffrey 1 (0-0-1), A O'Shea 3 (0-1-0), C Byrne 4 (0-1-1), S Cavanagh 3 (0-1-0), C Sheehan 4 (0-1-1), C Boyle 3 (0-1-0). Australia: S Motlop 8 (0-2-2), J Neade 6 (1-0-0), L Franklin 6 (0-1-3), Lewis Jetta 3 (0-1-0), Alwyn Davey 3 (0-1-0), M Stokes 3 (0-1-0) D Wells 1 (0-0-1), D Barry 1 (0-0-1), Leroy Jetta 3 (0-1-0).
Ireland: P O'Rourke; N McGee, F Hanley, C McKaigue; L Keegan, Z Tuohy, J McCaffrey; A Walsh, S Cavanagh; P Flynn, C Byrne, C Sheehan; P McBrearty, M Murphy, R Munnelly. Subs: K McLoughlin, C McManus, P Conroy, A O'Shea, C Boyle.
Australia: A McGrath; S Motlop, J Harbrow, C Ellis-Yolmen; N Lovett-Murray, L Franklin, D Wells; L Thomas, Aaron Davey; C Yarran, T Armstrong, Lewis Jetta; E Betts, M Stokes, J Hill.
Subs: Alwyn Davey, J Neade, D Barry, A Davey, Leroy Jetta, S Wellingham, S Edwards.
Referees: M Deegan (Ireland), M Stevic (Australia)