Tuesday 23 May 2017

Ireland's call as Kernan's men outgun Aussies

Ireland 56 (3-11-5 ) Australia 52 (1-13-7)

Aidan O'Shea celebrates after scoring Ireland's first goal
Aidan O'Shea celebrates after scoring Ireland's first goal
Australia's Jake Stringer tries to pass Eoin Cadogan
Australia's Jake Stringer scores a goal for his side
Ireland's Rory O'Carroll in action against Australia's Nick Riewoldt
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The only regret is that there won't be a rematch in Croke Park next weekend to further showcase the attraction of the International Rules hybrid game when it's played in the right spirit.

It's safe to assume that if there were a second Test, the attendance would be considerably higher than 38,386, the number that braved a cold November night for what developed into an absorbing contest on Saturday night.

In the circumstances, it was a decent turnout for a one-off encounter that didn't have the promotional impetus of a warm-up game, which would have made an impression on the public consciousness and boosted the attendance.

Instead, it was straight from the training ground into Test mode for both squads. It worked surprisingly well, eventually building towards a gripping crescendo in the closing minutes as Ireland inched over the finish line just ahead of the fast-closing Aussies.

Decided

The result - and the manner in which it achieved - would have been the perfect promotion for a second game next weekend. However, similar to last year when the Irish players would have loved a second clash in Australia, it was all decided over 72 minutes on Saturday.

Australian coach Alistair Clarkson summed up the frustration felt in the dressing-room as his squad reflected on the narrow defeat.

"In usual circumstances, you have another game in six or seven days to rectify errors. We would have been better for another run.

"Hopefully, in the series to come that will be the case and there will be two or three Test matches that give you a better opportunity to dig yourself back in. It's a long way to come and a long time to prepare for just one Test," he said.

Joe Kernan, who will manage the Irish squad again next year when they travel to Australia, would also prefer if the series were played over two games.

"There was a discussion (between the GAA and AFL) and I think it was very positive. I was told that Australia want this every bit as much as Ireland do," he said.

The main stumbling block to the two-game series, which applied for several years, is the availability of Australian players at this time of year.

It's an important phase in their pre-season training for the AFL competitions and clubs are reluctant to release players for international duty, especially if it stretches over two or more weeks.

And, with the AFL now selecting their top players (they must have won an All-Australian medal, the equivalent of a GAA All-Star), it makes it even more difficult to prise them away from clubs for an extended period. The strength of the Australian squad made the Irish success all the more satisfactory. Unlike two years ago, when Ireland hammered weak opposition, this was the real deal.

Ireland's response to the daunting challenge was most impressive, especially in the first half when they laid the basis for victory.

Kernan and his co-strategists, Pádraic Joyce, Dermot Earley and Darragh ó Sé, deserve enormous credit for the manner in which they had the Irish team primed for battle against such high-powered operators.

They had obviously studied last year's game in Perth when a slow start presented Ireland with a handicap which ultimately proved too much, despite a powerful finish.

The opposite applied on Saturday when Ireland's sprint from the starting blocks proved to be the match-winner.

Australia scored first but once Aidan O'Shea cannoned home a goal in the fourth minute, Ireland settled into a rhythm which took them into a 20-point lead by half-time.

O'Shea also scored the second goal in the 21st minute and Conor McManus added a third from the penalty spot before the break.

He was Ireland's top scorer on 17 points followed by O'Shea, who hit all of his 15 points (two goals and an 'over') in the first half.

His contribution to Ireland's cause extended far beyond his score-taking. He was outstanding in every facet of the game, popping up all over the place to make catches and get in crucial tackles.

Team captain, Bernard Brogan, who scored 13 points, was later named as man of the match over the Croke Park PA but, in truth, O'Shea was more deserving of the honour.

Brogan described the Mayoman as 'immense', which was an accurate assessment of his performance.

Australia's response to their first half problems was, as expected, smart and effective. They pushed forward in big numbers in the second half, often leaving Brogan and McManus unmarked, but with the Australians now controlling much of the middle third, Ireland found it very difficult to get the ball through to their two deadly snipers.

Australia pared nine points off the deficit in the third quarter and a further seven in the final quarter. And when Eddie Betts, backed up by Jarryd Roughead, forced the ball to the Irish net four minutes from the end, it cut the margin to three points.

It looked as Australia had timed their recovery run to perfection but Ireland dug in for the closing minutes and, in a rare breakaway, Brogan kicked a one-pointer, which turned out to be the last score. Clare's Gary Brennan emerged as key figure in Ireland's defensive effort in the second half.

He made a number of spectacular catches around midfield, which broke Australian momentum at crucial moments. Monaghan's Darren Hughes was also very effective in a period when the Australians were in full flow.

"The overall possession was 380 to 240 to us so we controlled the ball. We had a significant opportunity but we just couldn't convert some of those chances. We rushed it a bit more than they did," said Clarkson, whose term as manager is now completed.

Meanwhile, Kernan is already looking ahead to next year but, for now, he can bask in the satisfaction of having presided over a job well done.

Scorers - Ireland: C McManus 1-3-2 (17); A O'Shea 2-1-0 (15) B Brogan 0-4-1 (13), D Connolly 0-1-1 (4), L Keegan 0-1-0 (3), D Hughes 0-1-0 (3), P Kerrigan 0-0-1 (1). Australia: E Betts 1-2-2 (14), N Riewoldt 0-3-1 (10), R Gray 0-3-1 (10), L Breust 0-1-1 (4), D Mundy 0-1-0 (3), A Gaff 0-1-0 (3), J Roughead 0-1-0 (3), L Montagna 0-1-0 (3), J Stringer 0-0-1 (1), T Rockliff 0-0-1(1).

Ireland - N Morgan (Tyrone); E Doyle (Kildare), R O'Carroll (Dublin), P McMahon (Dublin); J McCaffrey (Dublin), E Cadogan (Cork), L Keegan (Mayo); M Quinn (Longford), G Brennan (Clare); M Donnelly (Tyrone), D Connolly (Dublin), P Harte (Tyrone);C McManus (Monaghan), A O'Shea (Mayo), B Brogan (Dublin).

Interchange: D Hughes (Monaghan), C Begley (Laois), P Kerrigan (Cork), C McDonald (Tipperary), J O'Loughlin (Laois), D Walsh (Kerry), P Cribbin (Kildare), P McBrearty (Donegal).

Australia - D Fletcher; R Grey, B Goddord,J Roughead; S Mitchell, L Hodge, L Montagna; R Murphy, H Taylor; H Ballantyne, E Wood, E Betts; P Dangerfield, N Riewoldt, D Mundy.

Interchange: A Gaff, J Stringer, G Birchall, D Heppell, T Rockliff, N Smith.

Refs - J McQuillan (Cavan) & M Nicholls (Australia)

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