Eugene McGee: Irish getting up to speed in International Rules
Aussie Rules sides unable to keep up with evolving nature of Gaelic football
It is hard to understand why the Australian team that arrived to play Ireland in Kingspan Breffni Park on Saturday night should be the poorest we have seen since the series started nearly 30 years ago.
When the AFL decided to confine their panel this year to indigenous players (as opposed to picking from all players operating in the AFL), it was believed this particular team would be a group of players that was highly motivated to represent their country. This was thought to be so because an indigenous team has never been assembled – in any sport – in that sports-mad country.
But from the word go, this did not seem to be the case and a highly impressive Irish team coasted through the game without even having to work up a sweat. Indeed players like Michael Murphy – who had to play a county final today – did not have to worry about being tired or exhausted.
We must, of course, allow for the usual teething problems that Australian teams have when they play their opening Test and, in particular, getting used to handling the round football. They did improve as the contest wore on and dominated the third quarter, so we can reasonably expect a substantial improvement for next Saturday's game.
But despite all that, it's hard to explain why the Aussie players lacked their traditional drive and determination that has been a hallmark in previous series – even to the extent of going wildly over the top.
Indeed, the large crowd in Breffni Park must have been crying out for a few physical clashes to liven up the occasion and seldom has a big game been played in Breffni with so little physical contact.
As has been the case in recent years, the Ireland players have used their own natural skills to good effect. They kept the ball low to outwit Aussie 'marks' and used foot-passing to open up their opponents. With Ireland adopting the modern style of Gaelic football, the gap looks to have widened between the countries and the Gaelic skills have practically taken over in these matches.
As a result, the Australians are constantly trying to adjust and catch up with the evolving nature of the Irish game.
Yet some things about the Australian approach did seem strange. Why did they not play more high balls into their attack where they could utilise their aerial advantage and gain profitable 'marks'? Why did they kick so many balls over the sideline – had they not realised that a GAA pitch is much smaller than their own Aussie Rules grounds? And as regards their trouble even handling the round ball, had each player not been made to practise using such a ball for weeks beforehand?
In fairness, the Aussies gradually began to cope with some of the unusual situations they were faced with and in the third quarter they outscored Ireland 18-11 to provide a flicker of hope for the second game.
A strong finish from Ireland largely undid that on the scoreboard, but when Australia did show some passion and a hint of a killer streak, many Ireland players began to struggle, so maybe we will see a much more competitive clash in the second Test.
What was most interesting for the fans on Saturday night was the individual skills of so many Ireland players as they exploited the freedom and space provided to them by their opponents. While we saw some wonderful long foot-passing – especially diagonal ones from Ciaran Kilkenny – there were also excellent long-range point-scoring and the speed of the Ireland players now as opposed to 20 years ago or more was phenomenal as epitomised by lads like Jack McCaffrey.
The biggest technical difference that has evolved over this series is how the gap in speed of movement has been narrowed between the two countries with the Ireland players not far away from the Aussies now.
And bearing in mind the large number of leading Irish players who were unavailable for selection, we can only guess at what the winning margin would have been if all were available.
For instance, there were no Kerry players involved and only three from both the All-Ireland champions Dublin and runners-up Mayo featured on Saturday's panel.
For the many people who took part in surveys last year about possible rule changes in our own game with Aussie Rule connections, Saturday was disappointing. The Aussie tackle – favoured by some in the GAA – was largely a non-event with only about five attempts at that skill, mainly from the Aussies. The use of the 'mark' was also disappointing because the use of low foot-passing, which made sense for the Irish players, deprived spectators of all but a handful of spectacular 'marks'.
The second game will be important for the future of this joint venture. Australia must be much more competitive and adventurous and, indeed, Ireland players could do with being much more aggressive too in line with our own inter-county and club championships which would invoke a response from the visitors.
Everything in Breffni Park was far too flat, almost boring, for your average GAA fans, particularly Cavan ones.