O'Rourke tackles tricky task
Preparations for Ireland's International Rules series against Australia in the autumn began in earnest at the weekend with the first trial match, played between a Connacht and Ulster selection at Breffni Park, Cavan.
Manager Colm O'Rourke and his assistant Mickey Moran will announce the trial panels from Munster and Leinster in the next day or so.
O'Rourke also confirmed the addition of former Clare and Limerick manager and seven-times Kerry All-Ireland medallist John O'Keeffe to the backroom team.
"Croke Park invited us both and we invited John O'Keeffe to join us. His involvement in management suggested him and he has a very good knowledge of physical preparation plus he's familiar with Munster players. Mickey has a good knowledge of Connacht and Ulster so we've a good nationwide system."
O'Rourke has his work cut out, with the two tests due on October 11th and 18th and the four provincial champions still unavailable for involvement in the trials. In previous years, the series did not take place until November.
"In Ulster and Connacht we asked 47 or 48 and the turnout was in the low 30s," he says. "It basically means looking at over 100 players. Turnout this time will be better as a few people were on holidays last weekend.
"We'll have two more counties by the end of the month but the big difficulty is that the All-Ireland final is only a fortnight before the first game and that gives little time for preparation.
"I might try and get them for one day to familiarise them with the game because it is totally different. Making it worse is that fellas are going back to play in club championships at weekends and are having to change focus."
There are sufficient differences between football and International Rules for the selection of the Ireland panel to be a tricky enough task. It's not simply a matter of picking the best 30 footballers and adapting them to the game.
"The three things I look for," says O'Rourke, "are first of all, a high level of fitness. This is a faster, more demanding game lasting 80 minutes. Secondly, a high level of intelligence because a player has to adapt to a different game. And he has to be a good kicker because accuracy is vital close to goal.
"The main adjustment to be made is in the tackle, not just being able to make it properly but making sure you don't get caught in possession."
O'Rourke acknowledges that there is a difference this year as hardly any experienced players are still available for selection.
No one on the Ulster and Connacht panels played in the last series in Australia, in 1990.
The positive side of this inexperience is that there is a great deal of enthusiasm among the likely panellists whereas O'Rourke feels that in the past, players opted out of the international series because they had already been involved.
"At that time, there were a lot of players around who'd played in one of the series and made the trip. They'd seen it and done it."
He denies that he declined to join Eugene McGee's panel in 1990 but was constrained by Meath's progress in the championship while O'Rourke was captain.
"I was tied up in the All-Ireland that year with Meath and it wasn't physically possible for me to get involved before the All-Ireland. As they weren't going to parachute players in at that late stage, I wasn't in a position to go."
Saturday's trial went satisfactorily but O'Rourke is cautious about how easily the transition can be made.
"It took fellas a while but there was an amazing number who picked it up quickly. Players will have to be physically tough because there will be knocks, particularly for anyone caught in possession. I hope the older players can cope with that; if you're getting caught in possession you're performing badly."
As a member of the football development committee, O'Rourke is enthusiastic about the international game and its possibilities. At the under-18 match between Ireland and Australia last April, it was again noticeable that because the emphasis is on moving the ball - or being penalised for being caught in possession - the game moves very quickly.
O'Rourke believes that this contributes to less tackling even though it is permissible to catch an opponent around the waist. "I find it a very good game, fast and free-flowing, which when played properly ends up with very little tackling because the ball is kept moving."
Even though there is little time to get everything organised, the Ireland management is conducting a thorough trawl of the country to come up with the players best suited to the demands of the game.
"There are 31 counties involved in the trial (Kilkenny the exception) and every player there has the same chance as anyone else. It's a very extensive search. We would hope to sift it down to around 30 by the end of September and bring in any players from the All-Ireland finalists. The reality is that those players will only have one good session the Saturday after the All-Ireland."
He denies that the whole exercise is cosmetic and points to the impact made on previous series by players who would never have come to mind had O'Rourke's predecessors not looked around.
"People like Spike Fagan and Noel Roche came through in the past because of these trials. I was talking to Kevin Heffernan (manager in 1986) about it recently and he said that players like that came through because they showed well in trials."
All of the fours series to date - 1984, '86, '87 and '90 - have been won by the travelling team. This is not altogether coincidental as they are able to prepare professionally while on tour.
"Logistically it's difficult for the home team," says O'Rourke. "We will have only one training session between the test matches while the Australians will be able to train for the full week. It will be pressurised and we will have to be quick out of the traps if we are going to win the first game, which is the target."