Australia rules with flair in their finishing flourish
The crowds are getting bigger and the series more entrenched, but there's an uneasy feeling that the quality of the football is slipping a little. Yesterday's Coca-Cola International Rules first Test at Croke Park was a stop-start and occasionally quarrelsome affair with few spells of sustained football. In the end, a rapidly improving Australian challenge comfortably overhauled Ireland in the last quarter for their biggest victory in the series for 13 years.
Fitness obviously had something to do with that. Australian coach Dermott Brereton said afterwards that he had noticed at Saturday's All-Ireland replay that Irish footballers have plenty of time for repose during an average game. As there are fewer stoppages in International Rules, he reckoned that his players would turn the screw in the final quarter.
Those last 20 minutes have long been an Irish bugbear in the international arena. It appeared that the corner had been turned last year in Australia when Ireland finished the stronger in the second Test. Yesterday it was back to a more conventional conclusion.
It wasn't just that the visitors were faster and stronger as the clock ticked down. As their grip tightened, they also began to find range and accuracy and out-scored the home side 21-7 in the last 20 minutes.
In the aftermath, Ireland were frustrated at the outcome because although management and players would have expected a difficult fourth quarter, it was the inaccuracies of earlier in the match which really caused the damage. Captain Trevor Giles lamented the failure to create and execute goal chances and that had been a crucial factor as the defence had played well as a unit until the late deluge.
One goal was a poor return given that the score favours the Irish, as it has no equivalent in Australian Rules. Other opportunities had been created but a certain wastefulness pervaded the attacks and Graham Geraghty should have done better with a one-on-one chance in the eighth minute but Andrew Kellaway saved well.
Brereton's pre-publicity about his new goalkeeper was more than justified with the tall Richmond player proving agile and safe in the Australian goal. There was little he could do to keep out the Irish goal when it came and at all other times he was a reassuring presence in the goal. Just on half an hour, he had to scramble back frantically to prevent a misdirected ball from Trent Croad dribbling into the net.
The match started with a couple of brawls and must have caused a gulp or two amongst the GAA and AFL brass as the now little-referred-to early days of the international project flashed through everyone's mind. Inevitably Jason Akermanis and Peter Canavan topped the bill with the Australian defender picking up where he had left off last year to the exasperation of the indignant Canavan. Not long after, Canavan had to leave the field with a bloodied nose.
Thankfully, the sideshows died out and the football began to flow. Ireland started a lot better and threatened scores on most of their visits to the attack. By the 14th minute, a 12-point lead had opened up and the Australians had yet to score.
Geraghty was in good form and had a sound first Test after the controversy of last year. He took one particularly spectacular catch in the 13th minute only to spoil the moment by failing to score. Larry Reilly of Cavan had a marvellous debut, using his pace to make ground and set up some good scores.
The visitors looked at odds with the round ball and their kicks lacked the accuracy to trouble Ireland with any consistency. After all the injury problems in their attack which was much depleted, the Australians had to put up with more woe when Michael O'Loughlin - one of their better players from last year - was carried off in the first quarter. He was suffering from mild concussion, but is expected to be available for the second Test.
At half-time Ireland led 28-19 and had displayed better aptitude and a slicker understanding of the game. But one significant straw in the wind was the move - late in the half - of Justin Leppitsh to attack. The Brisbane defender had begun to take marks and kick overs. This he continued throughout the remainder of the match to finish as the first Test's top scorer with 17 points.
The third quarter was notable for Geraghty's goal - a deft conversion after some excellent approach work by Reilly, Gerard Cavlan, Giles and Canavan. At that stage most in the 38,016-strong crowd (a record attendance for Ireland) would have seen the home side as likely winners. Brian Stynes must have brought tears to the eyes of Dublin supporters by screwing in two overs from the same general area where he missed that fateful free in the Leinster final.
A scoring burst - in which Leppitsch again featured prominently - before the end of the third quarter brought the Australians to within six of Ireland. Battle lines for the final 20 minutes saw Anthony Tohill switched to defence to try and defuse the threat of Leppitsch.
But by now there was a more varied threat. Blake Caracella, whose facility with the round ball had been noted in the practice match in Parnell Park, kicked three overs and Adem Yze also featured.
In the end the eight-point differential which gives Australia a substantial lead going into the second Test could have been reduced. Dermot Earley should have given Canavan a run on goal instead of taking an over in the 67th minute and Geraghty should have kicked an over instead of a behind from a 75th minute free.
Ireland: Cormac Sullivan (Meath); Owen Sexton (Cork), Darren Fay (Meath), Sean Marty Lockhart (Derry); Finbarr Cullen (Offaly), Glenn Ryan (Kildare), Anthony Rainbow (Kildare); Anthony Tohill (Derry), Ciaran Whelan (Dublin); Trevor Giles (Meath, capt), Brian Stynes (Dublin), Dermot Earley (Kildare); Larry Reilly (Cavan), Graham Geraghty (Meath), Peter Canavan (Tyrone). INTERCHANGE: Mark Crossan (Donegal), Seamus Quinn (Leitrim), Jonathon McGee (Dublin), Paul McGrane (Armagh), Gerard Cavlan (Tyrone), Colm McManamon (Mayo), Ciaran McManus (Offaly), Colin Moran (Dublin).
Australia: Andrew Kellaway (Richmond); Jason Akermanis (Brisbane), Justin Leppitsch (Brisbane), Wayne Campbell (Richmond); Rohan Smith (Western Bulldogs), Trent Croad (Hawthorn), Andrew McLeod (Adelaide); Scott West (Western Bulldogs), Shane Woewodin (Melbourne); Craig Bradley (Carlton), Justin Blumfield (Essendon), Michael O'Loughlin (Sydney Swans); Adem Yze (Melbourne), James Hird (Essendon, capt), Mark Ricciuto (Adelaide). INTERCHANGE: David King (North Melbourne), Brad Johnson (Western Bulldogs), Brett Ratten (Carlton), Damien Hardwick (Essendon), Nathan Brown (Western Bulldogs), Chris Heffernan (Essendon), Brent Harvey (North Melbourne), Blake Caracella (Essendon).