Thursday 23 November 2017

All the breaks go Australia's way as Ireland prepare for survival battle

A combination of unfortunate circumstances has heaped pressure on Kernan's squad who will be hoping that their luck will change in the Adelaide heat and take them to Perth with a good chance of securing a series win next Saturday

Chris Barrett applies some sun block during Ireland International Rules Squad training session at St Mary’s Park in Adelaide yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Chris Barrett applies some sun block during Ireland International Rules Squad training session at St Mary’s Park in Adelaide yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
International Rules, Ireland v Australia, Adelaide, Oval, 5.10am, Live on RTE Sunday
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If outbreaks of bad luck come in threes, Joe Kernan has been handed a full set as he prepares to lead Ireland into tomorrow's (5.10am Irish time) International Rules Test against Australia in Adelaide.

First, there was the disappointing news that he would have to plan without any of Dublin's triple All-Ireland champions, a setback that not only weakens the Irish squad on the pitch but damages the off-field perception too.

Then came the weather forecasts and the prediction that temperatures will soar to 34 degrees at match time, conditions which are far more suited to the Australians.

And, as Kernan and his medical team were working on how best to plan for that, the biggest setback of all visited the camp in the form of a stomach bug that left three players, Pearce Hanley, Enda Smith and Niall Murphy, confined to bed.

They are making progress but it's too early to know if they will be fit to play. Hanley would be a massive loss (Smith and Murphy are aboard for the first time) on two fronts.

He is very experienced in the mixed game and, even more importantly, is a seasoned AFL operator, which makes him a real leader against players he comes up against all the time.

'Chuck of the Irish as bug hits visiting team' headlined the story on the AFL website and while Australians officials were offering standard sympathy lines, they know that their chances of taking a lead into the second Test in Perth next Saturday have greatly increased.

Commitment

"It's the last thing you want. Preparations had gone so well up to the point where the three lads picked up the stomach bugs. But these things happen and when they do, you just have to get on with it.

"Hopefully, they will be okay to play some part. If we get all three back, it's a bonus. If not, we have 20 men well able for the job. We'd love to have all 23 fully fit, especially in the heat that's being forecast, but we'll deal with whatever comes along," said Kernan.

Definitely coming Ireland's way is one of the strongest squads ever fielded by the Australians and a commitment from them to regain the Cormac McAnallen Cup, which they surrendered to Ireland in a one-off Test in Croke Park two years ago.

The cards seem to be falling their way - certainly for the first Test - although Kernan insists that Ireland have the plans and ploys to get their game working efficiently.

They will need them because the odds are stacking up in Australia's favour.

Australian midfielder and Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury couldn't disguise his delight at Ireland's difficulties.

"It's good to know the Irish have been a bit sick and it's good to know that it's going to be 34 degrees on Sunday so it will be nice and hot.

"We're looking forward to playing in the sweltering conditions. The heat will be a big factor. It probably won't be for us but it will for the Irish. We're happy it's here," he said.

Proper use of the interchange - 15 are allowed in each quarter - is always an important part of the hybrid game but it will be even more crucial tomorrow, especially for Ireland.

It's second nature to the Australians as it features in their own game but Ireland always have to work hard at getting it right.

With doubts over three players, it makes the process even more difficult. Even if all three are cleared to play, they will have to be used sparingly, adding to the amount of time others are on the pitch.

"We'll work it out as we have to. You have to be prepared for all situations and while this is one we weren't expecting, it's just something else we have to deal with," said Kernan.

As has always been the case with International Rules, Ireland's main area of advantage rests with the round ball, which is alien to the Australians.

However, their better teams adapted well - indeed there were occasions where they kicked better than Ireland, which was embarrassing for players who were used to the round ball all their lives.

"It's obviously so different to what we usually do. It's about finding what works for you when you're kicking the ball," said Pendlebury.

There's a good balance to the Irish squad, with captain, Aidan O'Shea, Michael Murphy, Hanley (if he plays), Zach Tuohy, Eoin Cadogan, Gary Brennan and Kevin Feely capable of winning lots of possession.

They have some excellent finishers too, led by Conor McManus, who has done very well in his four previous international games, Paul Geaney, Shane Walsh and Niall Sludden.

Pendlebury hinted at the approach Australia may adopt when pointing out that they "don't want it to turn into a skill contest".

Essentially, the Australians want a war of attrition, having already claimed that they are 'fitter and stronger' than the Irish team.

This has led to fears of a return to the bad old days of violence and mayhem, which would be a disaster for the series after rebuilding trust between the countries.

The AFL know that the GAA came very close to ending the link-up because of the Australian approach so despite the fighting talk it's likely that the players will be told to behave themselves.

Besides, Australia have many of their best players aboard, who would be expected to do well without resorting to skulduggery.

"We're prepared for anything. Our boys won't back away from physicality. We have men who can cope with whatever is thrown at them.

"And if anything happens that shouldn't, I'm sure the referees will deal with it. I have no concerns on that front" said Kernan.

So between absentees, heat, illness and suspicions that Australia might resort to the nasty old ways, it has been an eventful build-up what will be the 41st game between the countries.

Given the doubts about three players, the important thing for Ireland is to ensure that they remain in a position to win the series in the second Test (winners are decided on an overall points aggregate).

That might involve losing on Sunday but by a sufficiently small margin to have a good chance of overtaking Australia in Perth.

"I have great confidence in these lads. They have worked very hard, they know exactly what they're doing and will stick to the plan.

"We got it right in Croke Park two years ago and I'm hopeful we can do it again, We have the quality to win," said Kernan.

Unusually, Ireland will have an overall height advantage as the Australians have opted for a smaller, mobile outfit.

They obviously have unwavering confidence in their ability to stretch Ireland around the Adelaide Oval which will be used for cricket today before reconfigured for the football game overnight. It will be switched back for cricket duty on Monday.

By then, Ireland will be on their way to Perth, hoping they are still in a position to win the series.

Irish Independent

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