Australia seeking to banish memory of their miserable 2013 visit
Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30
The one certainty about tonight's International Rules Test is that it won't turn out like the last clash in Croke Park two years ago.
For some bizarre reason the AFL despatched a severely weakened team, drawn exclusively from indigenous players, who were about as equipped for the challenge as if the GAA sent a junior outfit to Australia.
It ran contrary to Australia's ultra-competitive spirit in all sports and backfired with predictable embarrassment, not just for the visitors but for the entire concept of the hybrid game.
Ireland won the first Test in Kingspan Breffni Park by 22 points, a margin which really should have been much higher. It left the second game as a formality, which extended into a total embarrassment for Australia.
Ireland won by 79 points, clinching a 173-72 aggregate win. Once again, the future of the series was cast into doubt as the GAA saw no value in continuing if the AFL weren't going to take it seriously, which they hadn't done by sending such an ill-equipped squad.
All changed in a year. A new date (it was moved from October to November), a new format (one game only) and a concerted drive by the AFL to get their top players aboard resulted in a much different scenario in Perth last year.
The home side, represented by players who all had won All-Australian awards, (the AFL's equivalent of GAA All Stars), beat Ireland (56-46) after leading by 28 points at half-time. Ireland were totally overwhelmed in the first-half as the movement, pace and precision of the Australians dominated the exchanges.
The accurate assessment of Australia's superiority by Irish manager, Paul Earley will have served as a warning for new boss Joe Kernan.
"I think they had nine shots at goal (in the first quarter) and kicked seven 'overs' (three-pointers). We were uncharacteristically wild with our kicking. We didn't hit our targets up front, which we had worked on quite a bit," said Earley.
Ireland improved significantly after half-time, controlling their passing and kicking much better.
They pared 18 points off the lead in the second-half but had too much to do.
The lessons will have been carefully digested by Kernan and Co. Over the history of the series, the usual pattern - especially in the first game - was for Ireland to start well, with the Australians improving as they acclimatised to the round ball. It was different last year as Australia had the game all but won by half-time.
Their early dominance was so comprehensive that it looked as if Ireland could be headed for a defeat of similar proportions to Australia's thrashing 13 months earlier.
To their credit, Ireland stabilised and once they got their games working, they were the better side.
However, they had given Australia too much of a headstart and since it was a one-off game, they had no chance to retrieve the situation, as would have been the case during the two-Test era.
It's winner-take-all again tonight, which is an unsatisfactory arrangement as players from both countries are engaging in a new challenge for just one 72-minute game per year.
But, with the AFL's pre-season already under way, clubs are reluctant to lose players for two or more weeks on international duty.
The one-Test decider, involving a game which neither set of players practise for the rest of the year, means there's no way of predicting what pattern will emerge.
Still, there are some pointers, however unreliable. Australia have the same coach as last year in Alastair Clarkson so, presumably, he will be looking for another early surge, leaving Ireland chasing the game.
Kernan's squad selection is clearly geared towards moving the ball at pace, thus avoiding collisions with opponents who are more accustomed to the tackle allowed in the mixed game than the Irish players.
If that is to work - and it must if Ireland are to win - the passing has to be not only accurate, but crisp too. Otherwise, the receiver will take the ball just as the marker arrives, making him an easy target for a crunching tackle.
History shows that does not end well for Ireland, not least because of its energy-sapping impact.
Instead, Ireland will need to get runners, Jack McCaffrey, Philly McMahon, Paul Kerrigan, Peter Harte, Donnchadh Walsh, and Lee Keegan sweeping into the channels and providing opportunities for lead finishers, Conor McManus, top scorer on 12 points last year, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan and Paddy McBrearty.
The more physical exchanges will be the responsibility of the likes of Aidan O'Shea, Eoin Cadogan, Mattie Donnelly, John O'Loughlin, Darren Hughes and Colm Begley
There was a time when sulphur hung in the air ahead of these games, some of which wandered over to the dark side in the physical exchanges. Thankfully, that hasn't been the case in recent times and, given the positive attitude of the respective managers, there's no reason to believe that tonight's game will overheat.
Nonetheless, the physical dimension is important. Australia's tackling and shadowing was so good in the first-half last year that they forced Ireland into regular errors.
Indeed, Australia out-scored Ireland 17-9 in 'overs' (the equivalent of points in Gaelic football), which was a real achievement for players kicking an unfamiliar ball.
So if it weren't for the two goals, (Darren Hughes and an own goal), worth 12 points, Ireland's difficulties would have been much greater. Ireland should be far more proficient in scoring goals and in preventing them, since the Aussie game doesn't require specialised goalkeepers.
There are so many variables that it's impossible to predict a winner on anything other than a hunch. Croke Park and a home crowd could make the crucial difference this time, nudging Ireland to victory.