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Halloween horror

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THE ailing patient that is International Rules can go one of two ways after Saturday night's Halloween horror show.

It can give up the ghost and be interred in the mausoleum for sporting curiosities that have run their course. Or the Australians can start to treat the series with proper respect, and less of the lip service that we've encountered of late.

Unless the latter happens, it will be the end of an experiment that has endured – through several crises and the odd hiatus – for almost three decades. In which case, we suspect, only a small minority of football supporters will mourn its passing.

The cream of Irish playing talent remain committed to the cause, and for that reason alone we hope the scheduled tour to Australia proceeds next autumn and that the AFL can convince enough of its elite stars to don the jersey. But International Rules is in the Last Chance Saloon.

The AFL's decision to send over an all-indigenous team for this year's renewal may have been viewed as a noble gesture, even a novel marketing ploy; but it has backfired in spectacular fashion.

The end result was sporting carnage on a nuclear scale. If the tourists were mildly embarrassed by their 22-point defeat in Cavan a week earlier, then humiliation can be the only buzzword after Saturday's record-shredding 79-point capitulation before a two-thirds deserted Croke Park.

Their coach Michael O'Loughlin didn't try and sugar-coat just how abject they had been: "I'm a bit sick ... it really hurt me to the core ... I guess some guys weren't able to follow instructions ... terrible decision-making ... we wanted to kick the ball all the time when the message was to use our hands and our leg speed, but I guess that comes down to work rate.

"You've got to be able to run and carry it and some guys don't want to do that because sometimes it's hard and we don't want to do the hard stuff," he added.

 

RELENTLESS

When it was all over, the final scoreline read 116 points to 37. If this were the BBC's famous old Videprinter, you would now see "ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTEEEN POINTS" in screaming parenthesis, just to confirm this was no misprint.

In fairness to Paul Earley's Ireland, you cannot fault their relentless pace and energy, the accuracy of their foot-passing and efficiency of their execution, their sheer bloody-minded ruthlessness. Leading 78-25 at the end of the third quarter, they could have been forgiven for easing off.

Instead, despite leaking two goals in that final quarter, they still won it 38-12. Two more six-pointers from Paddy McBrearty and a speculative pass-cum-goal from Paul Conroy brought their total to a record six goals on the night. Ireland's previous highest Test score, 80 points, was shattered by a margin of 36. Australia's 100-point benchmark, dating back to Perth in 2005, was blitzed in the home straight.

The hosts had many heroes on the night. Skipper Michael Murphy reprised the totem-like marauder of last year's All-Ireland final, not the leggy Murphy of the summer. He kicked four overs while creating myriad chances for others, including Conor McManus: the TG4 Man of the Match pounced on a Murphy knockdown to slot the first of his two goals en route to a towering tally of 24 points (2-4 in Gaelic parlance).

Others sparkled at different stages: Lee Keegan with those familiar barnstorming counter-attacks, Ciarán Sheehan and the ever-game Ross Munnelly up front, Michael Shields in the full-back line, the voracious Paul Flynn in the first half, McBrearty late on.

 

MISMATCH

But here's the rub: how exactly do you grade Ireland's effervescent performance when measured against such a non-existent challenge? As O'Loughlin admitted: "It was like the best U18 team playing the U13s, and we were the U13s obviously."

There were a few early examples of Australia trying to up the physical ante: even before the start, Aaron Davey was spoiling for a row, first with Zac Tuohy, then with Flynn. Later in the first quarter, Colm Boyle was flattened by a late frontal challenge from Lindsay Thomas, leaving the tough-as-nails Mayo half-back concussed and unable to continue. But that was the height of Australia's 'aggression' and what struck the 28,525 in attendance, as this mismatch meandered towards its inevitable conclusion, was how Ireland dominated so many of the physical exchanges.

It goes to show how our premier footballers have grown stronger, more powerful, more conditioned to give and take punishment during the 15 years since International Rules was relaunched in '98. They are professional in all bar the pay cheque; their opponents were the ones who looked amateurish.

You can blame that disparity on the round ball but Australia's interest – or lack thereof – is the biggest impediment to the future of this game, if it has one at all.


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