Australia will make it hard for Ireland to compete in Perth

Future of International Rules series may depend on how match plays out

Australia v Ireland, Perth, tomorrow, 9.15am: Like the Railway Cup, the International Rules series is now at the stage where it's so riven with existential insecurity that even looking forward to test matches can become an exercise in contemplating the end.

Whereas the lead-up to tomorrow morning’s only test match this year has been far livelier than for a while in Australia, the underlying trend is of anxiety. The GAA have been talking up the prospect of the internationals continuing but accept that tomorrow’s match will have the power to sink the whole project or give the series a reason to continue.

The GAA and AFL will meet on Sunday morning to decide what happens next. By contrast the AFL are very cautious and reluctant to commit to anything. They have performed the arduous task of widespread consultation to get a formidable panel of players together but the nagging question has to be: how regularly can they guarantee that?

So badly had the AFL let their attention to the internationals slip that Ireland could become the first side ever to win three series on the spin.

As ever it’s nearly impossible to work out what’s likely to happen because the teams playing in tomorrow’s test have no history of playing each other. Ireland are recognisably Paul Earley’s team from last year – although 11 of that 23 aren’t involved this year – but there is no Australian player left from last year’s disastrous series.

The AFL team features a good deal of experience but there’s no continuity and the Australians haven’t fielded this strong a team since 2010.

Strongest team

Frequently when Australia take things seriously, Ireland can find it difficult to compete. So far the home side has been talking up their chances and maintaining that their team is the strongest ever. It’s hard to disagree, given the quality of the players and the fact that the team is managed by the game’s top coach,

Alastair Clarkson

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The issue for the Australians will be as always whether they can master the round ball sufficiently to exploit likely advantages of possession and territory.

Both sides looked in reasonable shape when winning their warm-up matches but problems remain for both. Ireland looked ragged under early pressure in the win over a VFL selection. It’s hard for Irish players to adapt to the fact that they are legitimate targets when tossing the ball around in defence unless they can engineer marks.

Ireland also scored nine goals, which doesn’t happen in test matches.

For their part Australia were excellent in winning marks and hand-balling their way into attack. The new rules on hand passing benefit the home side, who now can string together two further hand passes – six instead of four – before being required to kick.

The Australians may feel that the Irish excuses are coming in early, as there’s been much reference to the rule changes that prohibit short kick-outs and relaxed restrictions on the hand pass. At yesterday’s media conference with the AFL team, players were asked did they fear being beaten by amateurs.

The home team have been trying to achieve some control of the round ball but it’s difficult. Furthermore Fremantle’s Nat Fyfe, one of those acclimatising well to the ball, has been ruled out as a precaution by his club.

There is however enough quality in the team to pose serious questions. Brent Harvey has always been an excellent international and if some of the shooting during the warm-up match in Sydney was wild, Chad Windgard showed real acumen with the ball.

If the central challenge for Australia is how well their players adapt to the round ball, for Ireland the challenge is equally familiar: how to deal with the tackle. It’s often brushed aside that the Irish concessions in the international game are in many ways as hard to cope with as the shape of the ball.

Players aren’t used to tackling and more importantly they’re not fully tuned in to the danger of being hauled to the ground when they’re strolling out of defence trying to eye up a decent disposal. This will surely have an impact on the free-for-all around the kick-outs on the 45-metre line.

AFL players are brilliant at flicking the ball around on the ground so that they don’t make the mistake of trying to take possession and invite the tackle.

Motivation

The most pessimistic aspect of assessing Ireland’s prospects is simply the number of players who aren’t here and who played really well in last year’s series.

Overall though it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Australia have the motivation of wanting to atone for a couple of bad series whereas Ireland have been weakened by non-availability of players and rule changes that benefit their opponents.

For once though the result won’t be as important as how it comes about; in a way that’s not great for a sport either.

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