Tohill targeting big 'net' return
OF all the setbacks suffered by Ireland in the 27-year history of the International Rules series, last year's was among the most disappointing in terms of what it said about the relative skill sets of Gaelic footballers compared with their Australian Rules counterparts.
Australia's aggregate win over two games was just 10 points (the equivalent of a goal, a point and a narrow wide in Gaelic football), but the manner of its execution set alarm bells ringing around Croke Park because it highlighted some serious inadequacies in the home set-up.
Australia scored no goals (six-pointers) in the games in Limerick and Croke Park yet managed to win both, thanks to a marked superiority in the art of kicking the ball over the bar for three-pointers.
That's an area where Ireland should have had a distinct advantage with the round ball, but they were out-gunned 28-19 in three-pointers.
Ireland won the 'behinds' (one-pointers) 23-18, but since they are actually wides in Gaelic football, it suggested that the Australians, who experience the round ball only at International Rules time, adapted better than the Irish players who use it all the time.
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. Strike rates are always influenced by the level of pressure applied to the kicker. And while Ireland found themselves shooting in haste as a marauding opponent arrived to get in a tackle, Australia were able to work the ball into the target area, claim a 'mark', and calmly slot three-pointers unchallenged.
It's a fault line which Irish manager Anthony Tohill and his assistants have addressed as they set about plotting a two-game aggregate win which would level it up at 8-8 since the series began in 1984.
"We learned lots of things last year. We had loads of possession and scoring chances, but were guilty of poor shooting. That's something we have worked on," said Tohill. It remains to be seen how successful Ireland are this time in creating time and space for their finishers while also counteracting the quick Aussie thrusts.
Australia have a new coach in Rodney Eade and will field a much-changed squad (only four of last year's 23 are on board this time), but the strategy worked so well last October that they are certain to try it again. "We have selected guys who can run and a few out of left field who are good kickers. They have adapted well to the round ball," said Eade.
He also identified pressurising the opposition across every line and angle as central to Australia's game plan, because it's a facet of play they believe they can dominate.
"Being used to the tackling is a help. In our game, it's all about putting pressure on the opposition. It's an area where we're hopeful we can gain an advantage," Eade added.
The manner in which Ireland cope with that relentless pressure will be crucial to their prospects of building a platform from which they can complete the task of levelling up the series in the second Test.
"We need to push up on their kick-outs and put the pressure on them early," said Tyrone's Joe McMahon.
A good start is crucial for Ireland because if the Australians are allowed to settle into a rhythm, they will be mighty hard to dislodge. Fifteen of Ireland's 23-man squad have International Rules experience, which should give them an edge, especially during the settling-in period.
However, that experience has to be exploited through clever play and the ball must be moved forward to proven finishers like Steven McDonnell, Kieran Donaghy, Michael Murphy and Leighton Glynn.
Australia scored no goals last year yet won both Tests, whereas Ireland scored one goal in each and lost. Since a goal is worth six points, it's self-explanatory why Ireland should work on their running angles so that the attackers can get in close and test Australia's goalkeeper, Mark Nicoski, who has been pressed into filling a position that doesn't exist in AFL.
Ireland's failure on the goal trail last year led to other system collapses, but if they can work through for two or three six-pointers this time, it should be enough to build up a lead to take to Gold Coast next week.
Ireland (squad) -- S Cluxton (Dublin), *E Cadogan (Cork), F Hanley (Galway),*N McGee (Donegal), J McMahon (Tyrone), K Reilly (Meath), E Bolton (Kildare), C McKeever (Armagh), K McKernan (Down), C Begley (Laois), B Murphy (Carlow), *A Walsh (Cork), *D Hughes (Monaghan), *E Callaghan (Kildare), L Glynn (Wicklow), T Kennelly (Sydney Swans & Kerry), *P Kelly (Cork),*Z Tuohy (Carlton & Laois), *P Hanley (Brisbane Lions & Mayo), S McDonnell (Armagh), K Donaghy (Kerry), M Murphy (Donegal), T Walsh (Sydney Swans & Kerry). *Denotes first cap
Australia (squad) -- R Douglas (Adelaide Crows), J Frawley (Melbourne), R Gray (Port Adelaide), B Green (Melbourne), S Grigg (Richmond), J Kelly (Geelong Cats), J King (Richmond), B McGlynn (Sydney Swans), T McKenzie (Gold Coast Suns), S Milne (St Kilda), A Monfries (Essendon), R Nahas (Richmond), M Nicoski (West Coast), M Robinson (Carlton), L Shiels (Hawthorn), Z Smith (Gold Coast Suns), M Suckling (Hawthorn), A Swallow (North Melbourne), J Trengove (Melbourne), B Vince (Adelaide Crows), C Ward (GWS Giants), D Wojcinski (Geelong Cats), E Wood (Western Bulldogs).
(All except Frawley, Greene, Wojconski, Milne are first caps)
Refs -- D Coldrick (Meath) and R Chamberlain (Melbourne).