Series at a crossroads
Fears Aussie reprisals could kill off hybrid game
SUCH is the eccentric history of International Rules football that it almost always appears to be on the verge of a crisis which could zap it off the sporting landscape.
It's back there again, this time resulting from one of the most one-sided games in the 27-year history of the series and, equally ominously, the collapse in public interest in Australia.
And then there's the fear that their embarrassed team will seek to re-establish a macho image by returning to the dark arts which came so close to ending the series for good in 2006.
"The gloves are off. We need to be aggressive -- I'll take responsibility for that," coach Rodney Eade told his players after last Friday's 80-36 thrashing.
Whether the possibility of all-out war in tomorrow's second Test (9.45am Irish time) will sufficiently fuel the public imagination in Gold Coast remains to be seen. However, since less than 23,000 spectators -- the lowest in Australia since the GAA-AFL link-up resumed in 1998 -- attended in Melbourne last Friday, it's unlikely that the 22,000 capacity of the Metricon Stadium will be anywhere near tested.
The AFL gambled by playing a Test for the first time in Gold Coast but could never have anticipated that it would be in such difficult circumstances -- it is a formality that Ireland will win the series on aggregate.
Against that background, the big questions are whether the Australians have the capacity to make the second Test competitive, and will they resort to foul tactics?
"We have no problem with them being aggressive as long as it's within the rules," said Irish manager Anthony Tohill.
He has been making all the right comments about Ireland's need to retain their concentration and has prepared the squad accordingly, but he knows that, barring a cataclysmic turn-up, the Cormac McAnallen Cup will be Ireland-bound by midday tomorrow.
Australia's poor display last Friday can't be allowed to detract from Ireland's excellent performance.
Granted, it was made easier than expected by Australia's shortcomings, but the manner in which Ireland structured their game suggests that they would have coped admirably with much better opposition.
Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly, Michael Murphy, Steven McDonnell, Pearce Hanley, Leighton Glynn, Zach Tuohy and Kieran Donaghy led an Irish charge which completely over-ran bewildered opposition.
The Australians were badly let down by wayward kicking (they missed four relatively simple 'over' chances in the first quarter alone) which gradually sapped their spirits.
"I don't think the kicking skills are going to improve enormously because it's so difficult with the round ball, but there are some areas that we've got control of and areas we need to get better at," said Eade.
As for Ireland, it's a matter of maintaining the patterns which left Australia so frustrated that, in the final quarter, they looked like men who just couldn't wait to get out of Etihad Stadium.
That's a rare occurrence in Australian sport, and since Eade accused some un-named players of taking the international jersey under false pretenses, there's certain to be a backlash.
That will unquestionably involve pumping up the aggression. It can be done within the rules but, inevitably, there are fears that it might stretch beyond that.
If that were to happen, the consequence would be fatal. Crowds can always be wooed back but a return to the mayhem of Melbourne '05 and Croke Park '06 would spell the end of the series.
The Australians are well aware of that, so presumably the players will be warned about their behaviour by the AFL. Besides, there's a major difference between now and '05/'06 in that Australian players sent off in International Rules serve a suspension in AFL.
The one certainty about tomorrow's game is that Australian won't be anywhere near good enough to overturn a 44-point lead. They will do better than last Friday, but then they could hardly do much worse, unless of course they lose heart again.
Verdict: IrelandAustralia v Ireland
International Rules, second Test,
Live TG4, throw-in, 9.45am, tomorrow
Ireland: S Cluxton (Dublin), E Cadogan (Cork), F Hanley (Galway), N McGee (Donegal), Joe McMahon (Tyrone), K Reilly (Meath), E Bolton (Kildare), C McKeever (Armagh), K McKernan (Down), C Begley (Laois), B Murphy (Carlow), A Walsh (Cork), D Hughes (Monaghan), E Callaghan (Kildare), L Glynn (Wicklow), T Kennelly (Sydney Swans & Kerry), P Kelly (Cork), Z Tuohy (Carlton & Laois), P Hanley (Brisbane Lions and Mayo), S McDonnell (Armagh), K Donaghy (Kerry), M Murphy (Donegal), T Walsh (Sydney Swans and Kerry). Stand-by: K Lacey (Donegal)
Australia: R Douglas (Adelaide Crows), J Frawley (Melbourne), R Gray (Port Adelaide), B Green (Melbourne), S Grigg (Richmond), J Kelly (Geelong Cats), B McGlynn (Sydney Swans), T McKenzie (Gold Coast Suns), S Milne (St Kilda), A Monfries (Essendon), R Nahas (Richmond), M Nicoski (West Coast), J Patfull (Brisbane), M Robinson (Carlton), L Shiels (Hawthorn), Z Smith (Gold Coast Suns), M Suckling (Hawthorn), A Swallow (North Melbourne), J Trengove (Melbourne), B Vince (Adelaide Crows), C Ward (GWS Giants), D Wojcinski (Geelong Cats), E Wood (Western Bulldogs).
Referees: D Coldrick (Meath) & R Chamberlain (Melbourne).
the quick guide
1Goal = 6pts; Over = 3pts (the standard point in Gaelic football); Behind =1 pt (when the ball passes between inside and outside uprights).Teams have 15 players on the pitch at all times but can draw from a panel of 23 on an interchange basis, using a maximum of 10 per quarter.
2Games are of 72 minutes duration (consisting of four 18-minute quarters).
3A player who fields the ball is awarded a 'mark', allowing him to play the ball away without being tackled. Four handpasses are allowed, after which the ball must be kicked.
4 Tackling a player above the thighs and below the shoulders is permitted. Grabbing one arm or slinging an opponent to the ground is not.
5A player must bounce the ball at least once every 10 metres or six steps. He may bounce the ball on a maximum of two occasions but may 'solo' as many times as he wishes.
6A player may be in the 'square' before the ball arrives, except from frees or line-balls.