The Irish wanted it more

 

John McDermott, the Irish captain, epitomised the reason why his side snared the international series at Croke Park yesterday when he spoke of the honour of his achievement.

The Meath midfielder said it meant the world to him that he was representing his family, his club, his county and his country. Such depth of feeling was evident throughout the Irish side and the hosts deserved their victory.

Australian coach Leigh Matthews backed up the belief that the series meant more to the Irish when he likened the interest in the antipodes to the reaction to the Vietnam War. "No one at home cared about it much but the people over there did."

Matthews said none of the Australians would lose any sleep over the loss, before quickly adding that the players had a strong will to win.

The Australians did want to win. They are competitive animals and no player could have reached the top of his sport without the fierce desire to be better than the next man (or animal, as some Irish fans had supposed - even wanted - the Australians to be).

But the touring side didn't want to win as much. The Irish were more passionate, more resolute, and every man in a green jersey must have felt a surge of unfamiliar pride when the crowd chanted "Ireland, Ireland".

Chants ring from the stands in Australia when the national cricket side is walloping England or the Wallabies are trying to wallop the All Blacks, but it is doubtful that it would happen for a football code contrived to fill a representative gap.

Australians regard themselves as patriotic - every Australian believes he or she is from "the lucky country" - but it was significant before the first Test that only two players knew the words of the national anthem, and one of those (Jim Stynes) was an Irishman.

This would be unthinkable to a Gaelic football player and the Australians would have been politely shocked by the attention to the tricolour in the pre-match countdown, just as they were taken aback by the subsequent stroll behind the brass band.

The brass-band touch is endearingly down-home, which is no longer a feature of football in Australia. Since the competition was expanded from its spiritual home in inner-city Melbourne and given a national canvass in 1987, it has gradually leaked away from the mugs in the stands and become a corporate giant. A reasonable parallel is English Premiership football since the advent of Sky Sports. The Australian Football League attracts similar hype and glitz and it is difficult for the players to feel as close to the fans as the players from previous eras did. The Irish players, on the other hand, feel an inextricable bond with the fans because every player essentially represents the place where he is from and because the players work with these fans during the week. The strong sense of representing those closest to them must have been a motivating force yesterday.

The Irish were also helped by that very Irish phenomenon of rain. Contrary to what most of the world believes, it does rain in Australia but when it does the players are dealing with a familiar ball.

The Australians also knew they had brought over too many tall players for a game which is played mainly at ground level, but their hands were tied because it was decided to reward the players who made the All-Australian side with the chance to represent their country.

This was not a winning move, but it was admirable. If the Australians wanted to win above all other considerations they would have stacked the side with players with the pace of Ja Fallon and Michael Donnellan, who showed blinding turns of speed yesterday. But they didn't want to win at all costs, which, apart from the push-and-shove at three-quarter time last week, represented the spirit of the series.

The Australian attitude was neatly summed up in Mulligan's pub after the match. A fan seeking fortification while wearing a North Melbourne jumper described the match as "all right", which in Australia means anything from fantastic to mediocre, depending on the tone of voice.

When pressed he added that the series was "good fun" but the result was disappointing.

"But you can't get too worried about it, can you?"