Whoever dreamed up the International Rules slogan – "We're all on the same team now" – probably didn't have Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly in mind. Because now, after swapping their county colours for an Ireland jersey, both players find themselves on the same team not long after providing the hottest controversy of the football championship.
Connolly caused only the second ever dissenting decision in the 10-year history of the Dispute Resolution Authority (DRA) when getting his suspension rescinded just in time for Dublin's All-Ireland football semi-final replay against Mayo; that followed his straight red card late in the drawn game, for a strike on Keegan. It later emerged that Connolly claimed he was "choked" by Keegan, immediately prior to his own striking action, effectively claiming self-defence.
Connolly started the replay, Dublin won handy, and that would appear to be that.
“What we do on the pitch during the year is totally separate to what we are doing here for Ireland,” says Keegan, speaking at the Ireland team announcement for the one-Test series against
on Saturday week, where he will also act as vice-captain with
“So no, there are no problems with Diarmuid. We’re representing our country. That’s my main thing. I’m not apprehensive at all. We’re both adults at this stage. We both know how to deal with it. I was happy enough with the way the whole thing was dealt with.
“There is always a bit of awkwardness between players, not even from a Mayo/Dublin point of view, because you can be quite nervous coming into an environment you’re not used to.
“Playing for your county is quite easy because you’re close together. I was fortunate enough to make the 23. It is hard, the first three or four weeks is quite nerve-wracking but once you get over that you look forward to the weeks ahead. You’re playing with the best players in the country so you have to enjoy that as well.
“There are a lot of personalities there but it’s a good thing because we are all mixing well together. I’m just really loving the fact that I’m getting to play with some of the best players in the country because they are putting on some exhibitions in training. They’re hard lads to be chasing around Croke Park. Thankfully it’s the Australians that will be chasing them.”
Keegan also agrees the series has provided the perfect distraction from the recent off-field controversies in Mayo, which saw the joint management team of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly eventually step down after a vote of no-confidence from the Mayo panel.
“After the disappointment of the Dublin game, when I got the phone call (from Joe Kernan) I jumped for joy, because it was a good challenge for me. Mayo is a bit of a football mad county, so it’s definitely a bit of a distraction at the moment . . . this has been my sole focus for the last few weeks. All I’m looking forward to is 10 days time.”
“It has been a difficult period, but I’ll be honest, it was more difficult losing the game than what went on afterwards. We were in touching distance in a game with Dublin. That was probably the hardest thing for me personally. Mayo is a football mad county. They expect big things there. Whatever happened, happened. I left that to itself . . . ”
Keegan expects there may be ever more pressure than usual on Mayo to deliver in 2016: he's also expecting Stephen Rochford to be soon confirmed as new Mayo manager.
“Yeah, he’s the only one in for it. It’s a different challenge. But he’s enough of his plate (as he’s still in charge of Corofin too). So there will be added pressure on us. But I think we’re capable of handling it. We have some big characters there and good leaders.”
One Mayo player definitely missing until the start of the 2016 championship is forward Cillian O’Connor, who recently underwent knee surgery: “A huge blow for us, but it’s something that’s been coming for a long time as well. Obviously him being out is a huge void to fill but it’s a great incentive for the younger guys coming through next year.”