Irish win match made in heaven


Roll on next October. The Irish saved the International Rules series and the integrity of the round ball after a nerve-wracking final quarter which saw the visiting Australians thunder a sequence of chances either side of the crossbar.

Yesterday's encounter coaxed an astonishing home crowd of 35,221 to Croke Park for the concluding fixture and they oohed and aaahed their way through the quirks and nuances of this helterskelter game before ringing in an Irish win by counting down the final seconds. Afterwards, Irish manager Colm O'Rourke simply gave thanks to a soft Irish day.

"I was hoping that it would rain to be quite honest. I thought the Australian skill in kicking a dry ball last week may not have been repeated with a wet ball. Today's game just showed the future that this game has, it was a tremendous spectacle," he declared.

The novelty of this series seems to have emboldened us. Flares and sparklers were ignited as John McDermott thrust the cup skywards (briefly sending the lid into orbit). As he addressed the crowd, a scrum of about 20 youngsters mucked around the goalmouth, punting and running with an Aussie football.

Sign of the series' future? Why not? Elated by victory, eager to compromise, we wondered if we couldn't succsessfully decommission the contentious round ball for games to come and play with the oval leather. Visiting coach Leigh Matthews offered a learned perspective on the notion.

"Mmh, well, I think that would be irrelevant because, can I tell you, you guys wouldn't touch it. You guys would be lucky to touch it."

Give it to us straight, why don'cha?

"It's just that our ability to kick the ball to each other over 50 metres. . . it's a different game. It's a bit like saying we'll go and play gridiron. We couldn't play gridiron with the Americans either," he explained.

But the whole occasion had a touch of Yankee pzazz about it.

This is a game which beats to no discernible rhythm, lulling at sudden, odd moments and then, just as quickly, shooting ahead at dizzying, break-neck speed. Little cameos warmed the fans. We saw Galway flier Michael Donellan scorch down an open prairie near centre field with Scott Camporeale eyeing his heels.

The Dunmore man left 30 metres of smoking turf before the Australian smothered him. We saw Ja Fallon and Peter Canavan exhibit Association Football skills on the sacred turf, both drawing marvellous reflex saves from Stephen Silnagni, the visitor who drew the shortest straw and was stuck in goal.

We frowned for a moment, puzzled at a Sean Marty Lockhart move. Oh, yeah, the solo.

And we saw goals. Once more, the Australians found the net twice, obviously determined to see coach Roeber Diepierdomenico shave his ornate moustache, as promised if his players found the net. Camporeale beat Finbarr McConnell early, to the visitors delight.

But this time, goal raids favoured the Irish. Sean De Paor fired early in the second quarter before Peter Canavan turned on a dime and buried another goal. A blistering retort by Robert Harvey left matters poised at 37-36 over the break.

The third quarter was shaped by familiar names; live wire Canavan threaded a pass through for Ja Fallon to hammer past Silvagni and moments later the Tuam man played a lightening combination with Galway team-mate Michael Donnellan, who joyously fisted home another goal. Those strikes established the platform for a 5846 lead at the end of the third quarter and despite a final 20 minutes of Australian pressure, the Irish came through.

At times, though, Nathan Buckley, Matthew Lloyd and Rohan Smith looked so utterly assured with the wretched round device that you shuddered at the thought of them arriving from Down Under with a month's hard practice. Similarly, Matthews voiced his admiration at the tackling skills of Irish players such as Darren Fay, Seamus Moynihan and Brian Stynes.

So as this fledgling hybrid game goes into its 11-month off-season, it still remains to be seen if the Australians are sold on the idea.

"I likened it last week to the Vietnam war for Australians. Noone back home cared about it that much, but the people over there did," said Matthews in the press room afterwards.

"But I looked around at quarter-time today and it was just fantastic, it looked like it was full stadium. I just think the Australian people have to be convinced that this is a game that creates the excitement it does. The rules as they were gave both countries a chance of winning and that's what they we are looking for really."

So all departed happily. Last Sunday, the fans were entertained by an old-style rumble at the end of the third quarter. Yesterday, they delighted themselves by fashioning a Mexican wave in the GAA's headquarters. What began as an irrelevant stirring in the lower tier of the New Stand slowly sparked a giddy mass circle of body-waving. The press corps, somewhat controversially, demurred, but it underlined the tone for the day.

Afterwards, Jim Stynes embraced his brother Brian and took his leave of professional sport. There are rumours though, that we may yet see him stride around Croke Park again. As for the International game, well, the past eight days leave it enjoying a honeymoon period of its own. The revival is on. Next year's trip Down Under will determine for how long.