The news that Essendon pair Jobe Watson and Dustin Fletcher have been cleared to play for Australia in Saturday's Test match in Perth has focused attention again on the position of goalkeeper in the international game.
Fletcher is expected to be the home side’s goalkeeper, a position that doesn’t exist in the Australian game. He and Essendon captain Watson are both believed to have been served with infraction notices over the controversy surrounding the club’s supplements programme in the 2012 season.
Normally players under such notice would stand suspended but the AFL have the power to vary the terms of the anti-doping code and it confirmed yesterday that the two players had joined the Australia camp.
Fletcher is one of the players who have become heroes for taking on the goalkeeping jersey and performing very well.
From the time 30 years ago when South Australia's Garry McIntosh made such an impact in the first series in 1984 – dashing from goal with the intention of catching man and ball – AFL teams have found a succession of players who adapted well to the position, from Stephen Silvagni to previously less heralded performers like Andrew Kellaway and Glen Jakovich.
This year Ireland have opted to bring two goalkeepers, Meath's Paddy O'Rourke and Niall Morgan from Tyrone. The practice until now had been – especially in the away series – for selectors to include just one specialist and for an outfield player to deputise if the goalkeeper is injured. At one stage in the 2005 series, Dublin's Bryan Cullen had to play in goal.
The rationale behind this departure is the new rule forbidding short kick-outs and stipulating that they must travel at least 45 metres. Management have been so concerned by the need to have accurate re-starts that two goalkeepers with precise kicking ability have been chosen in case one of them gets injured. And last week manager Paul Earley had some karmic reinforcement when O'Rourke fell prey to a stomach upset.
“I don’t know whether it was jetlag setting in a couple of days later,” says O’Rourke. “The first day we landed I was fine, trained the next morning. We had our down-time and went in to the city, walked around, came back to the hotel then and all of a sudden it came on me. I was sick as a dog for 24 hours, from Friday evening right through to Saturday evening.”
On the bench
He had recovered in time to play some role in Sunday’s practice match. “It was vital that I got some sort of game time. In the backs or the forwards you can slot in somewhere but when you’re a goalie, if you’re not fit to start, that’s it, you’re going to be on the bench.”
O’Rourke, who kept goal for Ireland in both of last year’s Tests, doesn’t believe however that the changes to the kick-outs are necessarily going to weaken Ireland.
“I don’t think it will affect our side of things. Even looking back on kick-outs last year, very few of them went inside the 45. It’s about getting it to a place where you have a 75 per cent or more chance of getting the ball.
“Obviously they’re going to be a lot bigger and they’ll probably go zonal so we’ll have to be clever with placement. If they push up and are standing zonal, five or 10 metres on the midfield side of the 45, it’s going to make it very difficult. We’ve been working on it and it’s not like they’re springing the rule on us, we’ve been working on it for the last two months and we’ve plans in place.”