The natural: Conor McManus has Australia in his sights
Monaghan man has been Ireland’s top scorer in every international series he has played
Conor McManus, Ireland vice-captain, during the Ireland International Rules Series team announcement at Croke Park. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
For Monaghan’s Conor McManus, who will be Ireland’s vice-captain in Australia, this year’s series is already going to be less stressful than his first trip three years ago. There was just one test in that series and club business with Clontibret meant he was late arriving.
“We played Slaughtneil in the Ulster semi-final on the Sunday and then flew out on the Monday morning, got to Perth on the Tuesday and the test series was on the Saturday,” he says. “I was only there six or seven days and then away back. I missed the first 10 days to Melbourne or wherever it was. This time, unfortunately or fortunately – whichever way you want to look at it [Clontibret were beaten in the county championship] – I’m available for the full tour. It’s nice to get down and experience the full thing.”
McManus is one of those players cut out for the international game. Since his first series, he has been Ireland’s top scorer – in 2013, 2014 and 2015 – and the 24 points he hit four years ago attracted the interest of AFL club Essendon.
His preternatural finishing ability, well known in football, where he has at times had to act as a one-man strike force, often double- and triple-teamed by defences, gets full rein in the international game, where taking an attacking mark gives a player an uncontested shot and in which goals are worth six points.
He always knew it was for him, even as a child, when he became interested in the internationals and enjoyed the atmosphere.
“I’ve been into it for a while and it’s always something, if I got a chance, I’d love to get involved and play. I remember coming to Croke Park as a youngster watching all the players from across the country coming together on one team.
“You watch semi-finals and finals but to see all the best players on one team, it was a dream come true for a young lad coming to Croke Park to see that. It’s something I was always involved in. As a youngster I’d always have bought the international rules jersey, so to be fit to play it is great.”
The international adventure is also an upbeat end to a year in which Monaghan again stumbled at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage. A 10-point beating by eventual champions Dublin was an especially disappointing sign-off in a year when they also lost surprisingly to Down in Ulster before avenging that defeat in the qualifiers.
“No, never got going at all,” is his view of the quarter-final. “I suppose when you look at how we played against them, Dublin are so comfortable in that environment now of teams sitting back off them. There was one score they got against us where they kept the ball for maybe 1½ or two minutes, and that was us with 13, maybe 14 men behind the ball.
“I think there’s a lesson for us and everybody. If you look at how they dealt with us and Tyrone, and how compact Tyrone were all year, it shows how good Dublin have become at that game. When you flip that to the All-Ireland final and you saw Mayo went toe-to-toe with them, man-for-man and pushed right up, and caused them problems, there’s probably a lesson in that for everybody. Ultimately they still won the All-Ireland. It’s a credit to them how they can switch from one to the other.
“Mayo are an exceptionally good side. They’re very physical and fit; they have the personnel to play that game. But that’s the standard you have to get to if you’re going to seriously compete at that end of the championship. We’ll be looking at that and seeing what we can improve on.”
There was a great deal of comment on how poorly Ulster teams had performed in Croke Park. Provincial champions Tyrone were even more soundly beaten by Dublin and the consensus analysis that emerged suggested that the ultra-defence played in the province wasn’t helping in the later stages of the All-Ireland.
“That’s the reality,” says McManus. “It’s a more defensive game in Ulster. It’s up to us to try and balance that. When you’re in Ulster you’re not looking at All-Ireland quarter-finals, you’re not looking at the Dubs – you’re looking at your next game.
“Our next game in Ulster [in next year’s championship] is Tyrone , which will be a fairly defensive game. That’s what we’ll have to set ourselves up for.”
It was announced on Wednesday that Ireland manager Joe Kernan has added Armagh’s Niall Grimley, from the Madden Rapparees club, and Seán Powter of Douglas and Cork to the international rules panel for November’s tests in Australia. Both performed well in Wednesday night’s final trial match in Croke Park.
Grimley (22) had an excellent championship season at centrefield and won the Ulster GAA Writers monthly award in July. Powter (19) was arguably Cork’s best player this summer, an adventurous halfback whose goal against Mayo turned the match around and gave the eventual finalists their most harrowing near-death experience of the qualifiers.
Their selection finalises the 23-man panel, which departs on Sunday week for tests in Adelaide and Perth, as Ireland defend the Cormac McAnallen trophy won in 2015.