Good day for the Aussies
Croke Park's busiest weekend ended in some relief for the visiting Australians. Yesterday's first Test in this year's International Rules series yielded the visitors their first win in two years and their biggest in 13. It was also a result which does something for the international project that had looked in danger of becoming a monopoly with Ireland winning the first two series since the resumption in 1998.
The eight-point victory, 55-47, sets Ireland a daunting task next week if Brian McEniff's team is to secure an aggregate win and retain the International Rules trophy.
The crowd of 38,016 was the largest to have attended an international in Ireland - although some way off the record of 64,000 set in Melbourne a year ago. Saturday's All-Ireland final replay wouldn't have helped the cause of yesterday's match, but the GAA's projected figure of between 30,000 and 40,000 was comfortably met. Hopes are high the attendance at next week's Test will come in around the 50,000 mark.
On the field, the Australians, who have made more of an effort this year to include players better suited to the hybrid game, finished more strongly and gained confidence with the round ball as the match progressed. Coach Dermott Brereton neatly encapsulated the frustrations felt by the team at losing the last two series when asked about his reaction to yesterday's success.
"I reckon it's kept me my job for a start. I'm very proud about representing Australia. Jimmy (Stynes) and I were talking a little while ago and Australia, for its population, which is relatively small - not as small as Ireland, granted - are the leaders in so many sports in the world. Australian Rules football gets the biggest following of any sport in Australia. Yet the one nation we play against, we can't beat them. Finally we've beaten them."
The nation in question looked in sore need of some of the Galway and Kerry players who had to drop out because of the replayed All-Ireland. There is no word as yet on the likelihood of their turning out next week, but with Seamus Moynihan bringing the Sam Maguire around the county, his chances of being in a position to play look slim.
The Galway trio of Sean de Paor, Padraig Joyce and Michael Donnellan should have better chances of being available. "I'm not sure about their availability," said Ireland captain Trevor Giles, "but even today we had some chances which if we'd put away we could have won."
Despite the rising attendance figures, there's a feeling that the international game hasn't been delivering its best product over the last year or so. Yesterday's match lacked a competitive edge until the very end. While Ireland were on top, they never looked like being beaten, but in the last 20 minutes the Australians just eased past and suddenly Ireland never looked like winning.
At its best the game is fast and furious with plenty of scope to showcase the skills of both its component games. Giles was a bit nonplussed by the question about the quality of the game.
"It's hard to know when you're playing, but it felt very fast and the tackles were coming in hard and often. You have to give their management credit. They picked some suitable players for the game and they played very well. Any team that's been beaten for two years in a row is going to be stung and we were ready for that, but they just played very well."
All-Ireland champions Kerry will entertain Cork in the annual GOAL challenge at Fitzgerald Stadium Killarney on Wednesday at 5.0 p.m.