Ill players and unbearable heat: Ireland up against it in Australia
Kernan may be without Smith, Murphy and Hanley for first Test against strong AFL team
Ireland International Rules squad player Paul Geaney during training at St Anne’s Park, Adelaide. Photograph: Inpho
International rules series first Test
Australia v Ireland, Adelaide Oval, Throw-in 3.40pm [5.10am Irish time]
Like their 19th-century forebears, the Ireland international rules panel have arrived in far-off Australia, seeking good fortune only to encounter dysentery and unbearable heat.
If there was any doubt about how the travails of this illness have impacted on their opponents, these were resolved by a characteristic Aussie refusal to embrace the emollient at Friday’s media conference when Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury assured questioners: “We’re fine. 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, and we’re looking forward to playing in the sweltering conditions.”
The potential loss of players – Enda Smith, Niall Murphy and especially the experienced AFL campaigner Pearce Hanley – from an already bare-minimum squad is a concern for Joe Kernan and an especially unwanted one, as he sizes up the great unknown that is the first Test of an international rules series. The players affected will be assessed on Saturday morning.
These fixtures bring together two teams who haven’t played the game at all in two years, let alone against each other.
Even that is stretching things, as the actual figure for participants in the most recent Test in Dublin in 2015 indicates that five Irish and three Australians are renewing rivalry, which isn’t exactly a trove of data to analyse.
What we do know is that this is a very strong AFL team. Under first-time coach Chris Scott, who was assistant to Alastair Clarkson in the past two series and also a former international himself having played in the last Test in Adelaide 16 years ago, Australia have the potential to be very good.
Players like Patrick Dangerfield, unlucky not to have back-to-back Brownlow medals this year and his 2015 predecessor Nat Fyfe bring genuine star wattage to the game. The team captain it has been announced will be Shaun Burgoyne, the distinguished and versatile Hawthorn veteran.
Eddie Betts is a tricky forward who’s always done well in this game, his elusiveness and breathtaking kicking ability huge assets – the locals are already looking forward to the presumed match-up between him and Geelong clubmate Zach Tuohy, formerly of Portlaoise.
As a general point, when Australia field particularly strong teams they have a good record, like three years ago and in 2010.
The last two series – albeit played over just one Test – have had in common the home team starting strongly and resisting a spirited comeback in the second half.
From Ireland’s perspective one encouraging element of recent contests has been how well the players have done on restarts since the compulsory 45-metre kick-out was introduced. Clare’s Gary Brennan was the like the boy on the burning deck in 2015 in the vital closing minutes with three brilliant high catches.
It’s a vital aspect of the game and one which was originally felt to benefit Australia, which explains why, of the missing Dublin players’ management were particularly hoping to get Brian Fenton involved. But in his absence Brennan, Aidan O’Shea and the revelatory Kevin Feely will bring a formidable challenge.
If there’s one notable element in the play of better AFL teams it’s the refusal to panic. They have proved clever at continuing to do what they do best – running the ball with the advantage of the longer solo, quick hands at which they excel and a far more reliable accuracy when kicking “overs” or points in the Irish game, which are worth three in internationals.
They have also been more clinical in accepting that goals require different skills and the risk represent bad value when three-pointers are available.
Under Clarkson’s management they had a tendency to defend rather high up the field, which left them open to goal threats, which duly materialised in a full forward line of Bernard Brogan, Conor McManus and a rotating Aidan O’Shea, who was exceptional in that Test and captains Ireland this year.
Only Brogan is unavailable and as compensation Michael Murphy, who has been one of the great Ireland forwards, is fully fit this time and he and McManus, in the same category at least, form a lethal attack.
In terms of the imperative to get a good start it must be a concern for Ireland that the experience differential between the teams has all but disappeared. Previously because of a shallower playing base the GAA panels tended to feature more players who had played at international level.
For instance, the last time Ireland played a two-match series here was six years ago when the visitors had 15 capped players whereas Australia had only four. This year – almost certainly for the first time – it’s Ireland who lose that count by eight to nine.
That’s a potential problem for Ireland, as evidence tells us that you can never be sure how players – no matter how good they are playing football – will react to the relentless pressure of the full tackle and need for clean distributions.
Even in the absence of evidence, Ireland appear to be up against it.