Key steps that give Ireland hope of pulling off comeback
IRELAND played badly for much of last Saturday's first International Rules game in Limerick, yet they head into tonight's second Test at Croke Park (7.0) just seven points adrift of Australia.
Given the erratic Irish performance, that's an encouraging backdrop for Anthony Tohill and his team, but it can only develop into a complete picture if there is a marked improvement across a whole range of aspects.
Most especially, their kicking must be far more accurate, while they will also need to be clinical in working the ball into shooting positions through clever use of the mark.
Failure in both departments cost Ireland dearly in Limerick, but they are still very much in contention, so it's now a question of whether they can cut down on the mistakes of last week and develop into a coherent force which puts real pressure on the athletic Australians.
That challenge would have been easier if the Irish team had spent the week together. However, that wasn't the case, whereas the Aussies have been working together on a daily basis, which means they are likely to be even better than last week.
That will leave Ireland facing a massive task but after being stung by criticism following the first Test, there's a very determined mood among the squad. But whether they can bring everything together with sufficient cohesion to reel in the Australians remains to be seen.
To achieve that, they need to make a number of adjustments while, on the broader scale, the game requires a really good competitive element to ensure that public interest is maintained into the future.
Ireland deployed a soccer-style game-plan last Saturday, opting to move the ball along the ground in an attempt to frustrate the Australians.
That worked well in the 2001 series in Melbourne and Adelaide where Ireland, captained by current manager Tohill, created goals through clever ground work, but the Australians read it very quickly this time and disrupted the plan quite easily. Indeed, it was another area where Ireland would have been expected to hold an advantage, only to discover that the adaptable Australians were ready for it.
Apart from not working for Ireland, the soccer approach did nothing to enhance the quality of the combined game. The public reaction was one of unease that the game had become a mixture of soccer and Australian Rules, with the Gaelic football input in third place. It's unlikely that Ireland will try as many ground attacks this time.
Watching the Australians kick the round ball more accurately than Gaelic footballers was an embarrassment for the GAA. With five minutes remaining last Saturday, Australia led 14-7 in 'overs' (points in Gaelic football) which was a shocking indictment of the Irish finishing.
But they were struggling with their kicking all over the field, certainly by comparison with Australia, who were having only their second game with the round ball. It underlined in graphic clarity the negative impact that the pre-eminence of handpassing is having on Gaelic football.
Even then, Ireland should be better round-ball kickers than Australia, but they were not. Still, Ireland are likely to improve for the second Test, certainly when it comes to working the ball upfield and into a scoring area by using the mark.
They would also need to increase their goal opportunities. Bernard Brogan's late strike yielded Ireland's only six-pointer last Saturday against opposition who don't have Gaelic football-style goals in their game.
It wasn't until the final five minutes last Saturday that Ireland finally managed to develop real momentum and, once they did, they made the Australians look very ordinary.
Indeed, if there had been a few more minutes of action, it's likely that Ireland would have taken a lead into tonight's Test. It might not have been deserved in terms of overall possession but with a goal worth six points, even big leads can be wiped out pretty quickly.
That's one of the encouraging aspects for Ireland tonight. If they can hit a high tempo early on, there's every reason to believe they can stretch the Australian defence, especially if there's an improvement in their positioning and passing game.
Ireland scored 1-1-2 (11 points) in the closing minutes last week while also missing a few chances, so they know what they're capable of if they get their game going.
Ireland are only seven points behind (a goal and a 'behind' or two 'overs' and a 'behind') so the margin is quite small. However, history shows that since the series was cut to two games, success in the first Test is usually a prelude to overall victory.
Only twice (1998 and 2006) did first Test winners lose the series. Ireland trailed by a point in 1998 but won the second Test by 11 points. They took an eight-point lead into the second Test in 2006 but lost 69-31 in a game where the level of violence in the first quarter almost led to the permanent abandonment of the entire series.
Ireland won the first Test in 1999, 2001, '04 and '08 and went on to take the series while Australia did likewise after winning the first Test in 2000, '02, '03, '05 and '06.
Australian coach Mick Malthouse accused the Irish media of being negative towards the International Rules and claims it's doing serious damage to the series.
Apart from the fact that the Irish media have always given far more coverage to the international game than their Australian counterparts -- as proven by the travelling parties for 'away' series -- there's the issue of integrity.
We report on what we see, not what the GAA or AFL want to us to see.
Malthouse's claim that there seems to be a misery that the game has lost it brutality is ridiculous. The brutality was down to the Aussies, who came very close to wrecking the series after the shameful incidents in 2005 and '06.
To his credit, Malthouse has brought a much more disciplined approach but the game needs more physicality than was on display in Limerick last Saturday night. Both Australian Rules and Gaelic football are physical games, yet the mixture which emerged last week lacked real intensity.
No Mick, we don't want brutality but we do want a game where hard, fair tackling is a key ingredient.