Irish suffer from rotten core skills
Tohill's men beaten at their own game but Brogan goal offers hope
Australia 0-14-5 (47) Ireland 1-8-10 (40)
THE immediate test of plotting a system to give Ireland a real chance of retaining the Cormac McAnallen Cup is the responsibility of Anthony Tohill and his team but, based on the evidence presented at Limerick's Gaelic Grounds on Saturday night, there's a broader, more serious challenge facing Gaelic football.
It is this: if the game's core value involves kicking a round football, how has it become so corrupted that many of the best players in the country were made to look like nervous rookies by opponents who play with an oval ball?
The Australians had only five days and one, low-key warm-up game to acquaint themselves with the round ball, yet in terms of finishing, foot-passing (over considerable distances in many cases) and general placement technique they made the Irish players look as if they had just pulled on boots for the first time.
Harsh? Absolutely not. There is no greater fundamental difference between two field games than the shape of the ball and by accepting that Gaelic footballers couldn't possibly adapt to the oval ball for the International Rules game, the Australians made a major concession.
In the early stages of the series, the Aussies found it difficult to control their kicking -- indeed, it was not uncommon for shots from in front of goal to soar over the corner flag.
Not anymore. Their kicking has become so refined that they were clearly better than Ireland in a skill that should be second nature to the home side. The facts of the case are unimpeachable. Disregard the 'behinds' (wides in Gaelic football terms) and Australia won the game by 0-14 to 1-8.
It was 0-14 to 0-7 five minutes from the end, which meant that Ireland had kicked just seven points in 65 minutes. They had, however, out-scored Australia 8-5 in 'behinds' and added two more before the finish.
And yet you will hear arguments that the standard of Gaelic football has never been higher.
That is most certainly not the case in the precious art of kicking. The Australians' dominance in this area was the main difference between the teams on a night when it looked as if Ireland were headed for a heavy defeat with five minutes remaining.
They were trailing 47-29 at that stage and with the Australians having out-scored them 15-7 in that quarter, the prospects of large swathes of empty seats in Croke Park for next Saturday night's second Test looked very real.
However, Ireland injected a late surge of power, which yielded a total of 11 points, comprised of a Bernard Brogan goal (six), a Kevin McKernan 'over' (three) and two behinds (one each) from Steven McDonnell and Tommy Walsh.
Indeed, Ireland had other chances, too, to nibble further into Australia's lead but were let down by, yes, poor kicking.
The strong finish has kept the Croke Park Test very much alive, although history shows that the travelling team tends to be better in the second game, having spent a week working together on the various modifications they deem to be required.
One of Ireland's main tactics was based on use of the ground pass, soccer-style. The plan was to move the ball quickly on the surface, thus denying the Australians the opportunity to get in heavy tackles.
It has worked sporadically over the years -- notably in 2001 when a team captained by Tohill won the series in Australia.
It wasn't as effective this time, principally because a mobile Australian team adapted very quickly.
Nor did the tactic please some Irish supporters, who complained afterwards that they hadn't come to watch a cross between soccer and Australian Rules.
With the 'mark' a key element in the mixed game, it's all about quick, accurate deliveries with the ultimate aim of winning a scoreable kick close to the opponents' goal.
Australia did it far better and while there could be no complaints about Ireland's effort or energy, they greatly increased their workload with some sloppy passing.
Since the Gaelic football-style goal doesn't exist in Australian Rules, Ireland would be expected to have a decided advantage in terms of creating six-pointers, but they managed just one in the full 72 minutes.
It was a spectacularly finished effort from Brogan after a surging run, but the fact that so few other goal chances were created was hugely disappointing.
Australia didn't threaten Stephen Cluxton's goal very often either, although man-of-the-match Adam Goodes was unlucky with a punched effort, which clipped the crossbar and flew over, while Goodes caused problems for a variety of markers and finished as top scorer with four 'overs'.
Brogan top-scored for Ireland with a goal and an 'over' (nine points) but the degree to which the attack struggled overall is underlined by the final return of 40 points.
Only once in the previous 32 Test games had Ireland scored so little, and they had an excuse in 2006 (31 points) as the game in Croke Park descended into a disgusting slug-fest.
It was very different on Saturday, where both sides observed the sporting protocols to the letter.
The crowd expected some crackle in the chilly autumn air but clearly both sets of players were warned to be on their best behaviour, an instruction they followed all the way.
Cluxton, Graham Canty, Colm Begley, Leighton Glynn, Sean McDermott, Tadhg Kennelly, McDonnell and Brogan (early and late) had some good moments for Ireland, but overall it was Australia who dominated most of the possession and put together the better moves.
They won the first three quarters by margins of three, two, and four points respectively, but lost the last by two after Brogan's goal revived Ireland's effort and ensured the series headed for Croke Park as a going concern.
Scorers -- Australia: A Goodes 12 (0-4-0), T Banfield 6 (0-2-0), L Montagna 6 (0-2-0), D Cross 6 (0-2-0), E Betts 6 (0-2-0), J Frawley 3 (0-1-0), P Dangerfield 3 (0-1-0), M Boyd 2 (0-0-2), K Simpson 2 (0-0-2), K Jack 1 (0-0-1). Ireland: A Brogan 9 (1-1-0), S McDonnell 8 (0-2-2), S Cavanagh 7 (0-1-4), T Walsh 4 (0-1-1), D Goulding 3 (0-1-0), L Glynn 3 (0-1-0), K McKernan 3 (0-1-0), T Kennelly 1 (0-0-1), K Reilly 1 (0-0-1), M Clarke 1 (0-0-1).
Ireland -- S Cluxton (Dublin); C McKeever (Armagh), F Hanley (Galway), B Donaghy (Armagh); S McDermott (Roscommon), G Canty (Cork), K Reilly (Meath); C Begley (Laois), T Kennelly (Kerry and Sydney Swans); L Glynn (Wicklow), S McDonnell (Armagh) S Cavanagh (Tyrone); B Brogan (Dublin), T Walsh (Kerry and St Kilda), M Clarke (Down). Interchange: D Goulding (Cork), K McKernan (Down), J Kavanagh (Kildare), P Keenan (Louth), B Murphy (Carlow), M Murphy (Donegal), E Bolton (Kildare), N McNamee (Offaly).
AUSTRALIA -- D Fletcher (Essendon); P Duffield (Fremantle), J Frawley (Melbourne), K Simpson; B Gibbs (Carlton), G Ibbotson (Fremantle), T Goldsack (Collingwood); M Boyd (Western Bulldogs), D Swan (Collingwood); L Pickens (Carlton), A Goodes (Sydney Swans) J McVeigh (Sydney Swans); E Betts (Carlton), J Riewoldt (Richmond), B Green (Melbourne). Interchange: D Cross (Western Bulldogs), L Montagna (St Kilda), K Jack (Sydney Swans), T Banfield (Brisbane Lions), P Dangerfield (Adelaide Crows), D Wojcinski (Geelong).
Refs -- D Coldrick (Meath) and B Rosebury (AFL).