Monday 27 March 2017

Give Aussie mutts a bone and they will slather over it

Tommy Conlon

In Australian football they are apparently downsizing their players as the trend moves towards speed and mobility instead of bulk and altitude.

Unfortunately, the decrease in brawn doesn't appear to have inspired a corresponding increase in brains. The national team went into Friday's second international rules Test match trailing by 44 points from the first Test and staring a series defeat in the face. So, with an inevitability that was almost comical, the Aussies decided to release their inner buffoon.

Ah yes. It's good to see that in a changing world, some things remain the same. Their predecessors started this pattern back in the 1980s. And various generations since have proudly upheld the same philosophy: why lose with dignity when you can lose like an imbecile?

Let us divert for a moment. Dr Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who found he could programme dogs to react in a predictable fashion. He would ring a bell before giving them their food; they would drool at the sight of the food. Pretty soon they started drooling just when the bell rang.

Some of these Australian footballers make Pavlov's dogs look like free-thinking intellectuals. The prospect of defeat is such an affront to their machismo that as soon as they sniff it in the air, they start barking. Who knows, maybe howling at the moon too. It's as easy as pushing the buttons in a bank's ATM. You just key in the relevant letters -- in this case, L O S E R -- and out pops the automatic response. It usually begins with a generalised campaign of incitement; a ritualised programme of pushing and shoving and grappling; a fiesta of cheap shots until eventually the whole thing kicks off and there's a free-for-all. They even have a phrase for it: "open slather". Which, coincidentally, sounds like a good description of the effect Pavlov's bell had on his dumb canines.

They didn't even wait for the bell on Friday night. An Australian player by the name of Mitch Robinson began jostling and bumping with Down's Kevin McKernan before the ball was thrown in. Likewise Brad Green with Armagh's Ciarán McKeever. Robinson, subtle as a sledgehammer (although, to be fair, discernibly more sentient), continued spoiling for a fight for more or less the rest of the match. Which, really, is a long time to be running around making an eejit of oneself. Green was as bad, although he had the redeeming feature of actually being able to play football.

Australia had geniuses like this pair all over the field. Between them all they managed to break up the game until it eventually disintegrated into a tedious series of skirmishes. The ball was almost ignored in the third quarter, which finished with the sort of mass confrontation they'd been seeking all night. The dogs finally got their feed. Then, suitably sated, they lost interest in the fourth quarter.

It had all been so stupid, and so risibly predictable, that one hoped for a somewhat more disdainful response from the Irish. When Green barged into McKeever at the start, patently looking for aggro, McKeever decided to retaliate likewise. Nothing excessive, mind, just more or less standing his ground. But he could've just smiled as well and turned away. Maybe patted him on the head. Scorn is an effective weapon when an opponent is behaving with such obvious desperation. Especially when your team is leading by 44 points.

Overall, though, the Irish players generally handled the provocation maturely. As a team they got sucked into that third-quarter rumble. But as individuals they disengaged from several potential flashpoints which could have erupted with one retaliatory blow. They managed to navigate the fine line between self-defence and self-control.

They hit hard too, but usually within the legal parameters. Donegal's Michael Murphy epitomised a team temperament that was nicely calibrated between aggression and discipline. He delivered some fierce tackles, including a well-timed stonker early doors Friday night that crumpled the recipient. But he managed to stay out of trouble for most of the series too.

Mentally, therefore, this was a very well drilled side. A big majority of the squad stepped up and performed. When they had the ball they were smart and skilful. When they didn't they ran hard

and tackled hard to get it back. The collective spirit was impressive. Anthony Tohill and his management team deserve great credit for sending out a group that was so comprehensively prepared for the job.

Australia, obviously, were a poor team, perhaps the worst to represent their country since the competition began in 1984. But 12 months ago the shoe was on the other foot. Ireland had been outclassed over the two Tests. The massive turnaround this year has to be applauded, irrespective of the standard of opposition.

The 2010 series prompted a lot of worried reflections on the state of Gaelic football. It was a hard lesson but a good health check. This year's success doesn't mean the problems have been solved -- far from it. But the ongoing exposure to AFL standards remains a useful yardstick. It is objective information, provided from an external source. It should always help to keep the GAA on its toes.

It was Ireland's turn to dish out the hard lesson this year. The AFL players responded by doing what they always do in these situations. We shouldn't be surprised: dear old Dr Pavlov could've told us that.

thecouch@independent.ie

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