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Teenager who shook Aussies

THERE are a few images from the International Rules series which stick with you. Graham Canty battling it out in the air with Barry Hall a couple of years ago, Michael Donnellan tearing through the Australian defence for a memorable goal in 1998, various Jackie Chan-style schemozzles.

But perhaps the most memorable display of the entire series came near the beginning, back in 1986 when Ireland travelled to Australia as rank outsiders after being comprehensively beaten in the inaugural tests two years previously.

It was a time when the Aussies exploited their edge in physical presence without too many scruples and in the first game they pulverised Ireland both physically and on the scoreboard. But in the second test Ireland levelled the series, inspired by Jack O'Shea who played on with a broken nose and despite being constantly targeted by the opposition. It would all come down to the final test.

And in the final test it all came down to the final quarter. The final quarter came down to a teenage student from Cork who had only played two senior inter-county matches in his young life. In the space of four minutes, John O'Driscoll scored fifteen points to give Ireland an historic win. It remains the greatest one-man show in the history of International Rules. Not bad for a guy who two years earlier was barely let watch the series.

"There was a game in Cork in 1984 and I was mad to go to it. But my father wasn't going to bring me, he disapproved of International Rules. The only reason I got to go was because Cork were playing on a double bill with the match."

John O'Driscoll smiles at the memory and is instantly recognisable as the youngster who lit up the stadium in Melbourne nineteen years ago. He has put on a bit of weight, to be sure, but he's one of those lads who will probably always have a boyish cut to their jib. We're in the Viaduct Inn just outside Cork city. Just up the road a huge crowd once gathered to see the greatest road bowler of all-time Mick Barry loft a bowl over the titular structure. Barry's feat went down in folklore. O'Driscoll's Antipodean night has joined it there.

The most melodramatically inclined Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't have contrived such an unlikely hero. A year previously he had been playing at midfield on the Cork minor team which lost to Mayo in the All-Ireland final. Cork called him up for the senior championship in which he played two games, taking part in a win over Clare and the usual Munster final loss to Kerry. O'Driscoll was surprised, to be honest, to make the preliminary panel of 80 for the series. He didn't expect anything more.

"Every Saturday morning I had to get up at six in the morning to drive to Cork and get the half-seven train to Dublin. I kept saying to my father, 'I won't go today, I'm fed up of this and I'm never going to make it.' He'd tell me to go anyway, that it would be good experience. There were twelve get-togethers in Dublin and people kept dropping out and I kept hanging in there but it was still a huge surprise when I got to travel."

The Ireland manager had seen something in the unknown Corkman. But then again the Ireland manager had a talent for spotting unsuspected talent in unlikely players. His name was Kevin Heffernan and O'Driscoll found out very quickly what kind of man he was dealing with.

"The very first training session was the Saturday after the Munster final in Parnell Park. I got out there early and there were only four or five players on the pitch. One of them kicked the ball to me when I was running on and I let it hop, walked over and picked it up. Heffernan roared at me. He said that once I stepped on that pitch I was training and I did not let the ball bounce. If I wasn't going to do things properly I could go home. That was my introduction to Kevin Heffernan. I thought 'this man means business'."

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'The Australian players would hit you in the face if they got a chance, but they always did it in the open, never off the ball'

Those Saturday sessions with Heffernan were augmented by midweek training in Limerick for the Western players conducted by former Galway great Liam Sammon. A student of Physical Education and Mathematics in Thomond College at the time, O'Driscoll didn't have to worry about travelling to those. The journey to Australia was a bit more demanding, it was the first time that he had been further abroad than England.

In Australia, Heffernan trained the players in the morning and the evening and there were two and three-hour team meetings. It was, O'Driscoll, admits an eye-opener. "He was there to do a job and that was to win the series by any means necessary. He had a dietician and doctors and a very professional set-up. I thought I'd see Australia but instead we ended up stuck in hotels in the middle of cities all the time. We had one day off and myself and Jimmy Kerrigan thought it would be nice to see some kangaroos. When we asked the hotel receptionist where we'd find them she told us to go to the zoo."

Painstaking preparation notwithstanding, Ireland were slaughtered in the first test. O'Driscoll played and was happy with his performance but admits that Ireland had let themselves be ambushed. "We just weren't prepared for what they threw at us physically in the first game, it was a total free-for-all. But what really drove us on afterwards was that the Australian manager John Todd called us wimps. In fairness to the Australian players they didn't go on like that, they would hit you in the face if they got a chance, but they always did it in the open, never off the ball. They didn't think there was anything wrong with that, they thought it was far worse to kick the ball on the ground. They hated when you put in the boot on a man going to pick up the ball, something which Niall Cahalane did several times."

At home the feeling might have been that Ireland just weren't strong enough for Australia, but O'Driscoll remembers Ireland remaining confident.

"We knew we were fitter than them. I know they were professionals but Gaelic footballers have nearly always been fitter than the Australians. We had the advantage of being the touring party and as well as that the game suits Gaelic footballers far more than it does Australian Rules players. They'll always find the round ball very hard to deal with.

"Heffernan made a tactical switch too. He noticed that in the first test their corner-forwards kept running up and down the line until they got tired and immediately a couple of subs would come in. That was what had beaten us, not the physical stuff, because those players linked up everything. So, instead of playing corner-backs on them, he had Niall Cahalane and Ciarán Murray following them everywhere and then someone like Noel Roche would come in. Gerry Hargan and Mick Holden played wing-back instead. It might have looked funny, but it made all the difference."

Ireland won the second test in Adelaide and their main worry for the third was that the Australians would stop at nothing physically. There would be no suspensions to worry about given that the series was ending. The physical stuff was forthcoming all right, but Ireland stood firm in the face of it. Teddy McCarthy, O'Driscoll chuckles, holds the record of being sent off on three continents, a dismissal in Canada while playing for the All-Stars completing the set.

The game was up for grabs coming into the fourth quarter. Enter O'Driscoll. Luckily, according to himself. "I had been playing so badly that day that I expected to be taken off in every quarter, I had missed some great chances and was surprised to be still on. In fact, when I got my first chance in the fourth quarter I blessed myself because I wasn't sure I'd score at all. It all happened so quickly it was hard to take in but really it was made easy because I had good players getting the ball to me, the likes of Dermot McNicholl, Greg Blaney and Jimmy Kerrigan."

Series won, the team had a week off in Sydney, but O'Driscoll recalls being so tired from the weeks of matches and training that he just wanted to go home. When he did get home there was a welcoming crowd in Cork Airport, a marching band in his home village of Ballingeary. Only then did he realise what a big deal the series had been back in Ireland.

To this day, and he admits this himself, John O'Driscoll will always be remembered as the hero of the International Rules series of 1986. He was part of the Cork senior panel for twelve years, but the great career predicted for him didn't quite transpire.

"I hit a slump when I came back from Australia. There were enormous expectations that I would be the next superstar of the game and a lot of pressure on me. I had a lot of injuries too, fierce trouble with my hamstring. I don't know, I'd like to think my career would have turned out the same even if I hadn't gone to Australia."

He was part of the Cork senior panel for twelve years, but the great career predicted for him didn't quite transpire

He did have a magnificent year in 1993, dismantling the Mayo defence single-handed in the All-Ireland semi-final, scoring one of the great All-Ireland final goals against Derry. But it would be easy to finish this piece on a sad note, to paint John O'Driscoll's post-Australian years as somehow unsatisfying.

Except it's not like that. As Bogart and Bergman would always have Paris, John O'Driscoll will always have Ballingeary, his club in the Muskerry Gaeltacht. At the height of his fame he had offers from Cork city senior clubs to leave Ballingeary. He demurred. Even when he moved to Waterford he still came back and played with the little junior team which had set him on the road to Melbourne. (Salthill and Na Fianna imports take note.)

His Australian experience and the All-Ireland medals he won with Cork, he says, come second to the divisional junior titles he won in 1992 and 1994 with Ballingeary, his only club honours. "At the start of this year they rang and asked me the story and I told them I wouldn't be offended if they didn't need me anymore." They needed him so he makes the journey back home from Glanmire. He's 38 and it takes him a couple of days to get over a training session but there's still a place with his name on it in the full-forward line.

And guess what? In a couple of weeks' time he'll be playing in another divisional final against either Grenagh or Canovee. One last win might be the sweetest moment of all. Whatever happens, one thing's for sure. At some stage someone will point at the veteran playing his heart out for Ballingeary and say, "Do you see him? That's John O'Driscoll. You know, the man who won the game in Australia."

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