PADDY HEANEY: We can expect thunder Down Under as Aussies get serious

I am not really a gambling man but when I see a gap in the betting markets, I sometimes make an investment.

Rated as 4/9 shots to beat Ireland in Saturday’s International Rules Test, a star-studded Australian team are extremely difficult to resist.

Having witnessed the last few Tours in Australia, it’s difficult to see how Paul Earley’s players can win this game.

When Ireland last visited the southern hemisphere in 2011, they romped to an easy victory. But the differences between then and now couldn’t be more pronounced.

Three years ago, it wasn’t just the Irish journalists who weren’t familiar with the players in the AFL squad. The Australians didn’t know them either.

That’s not an exaggeration. The Herald Sun poked fun at the lack of high-profile personnel in the Australian squad by carrying a photograph of eight Australian panellists as they stood beside each other at a training session. The headline above the players posed the question: ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Who? Who? Who?’ The identity of the players was revealed on another page. Although AFL officials made all the right noises and insisted that they were keen to promote the International Rules Series, their words didn’t ring true.

In 2011, the AFL failed to attract to a sponsor. The second Test was played in the Gold Coast, which is an Aussie Rules wasteland. It was like staging a football game in Kilkenny.

Why was the Test brought to the Metricon Stadium? The cheque which the AFL received from the local tourist authority probably had something to do with it.

When quizzed about the lack of star players in their squad, AFL officials resorted to spin-doctoring. We were told that All-Australians (the equivalent of All Stars) weren’t necessarily suited to the hybrid game, hence the selection of so many lesser known players.

That theory turned out to be a steaming pile of dog poo. When Australian manager Rodney ‘Rocket’ Eade was asked the same question, he bluntly confirmed that the big names didn’t want to play. They were on their holidays and they just weren’t interested.

In 2011, the Aussies were a joke. Their lack of interest and focus was neatly captured by one incident which occurred in South Melbourne, a district which is home to some of the city’s favourite partying venues. Just a few hours before he was supposed to join his Australian team-mates for their first session, Colin Sylvia’s BMW crashed and knocked down a telegraph pole at 6.15am. The Melbourne Demons player was dropped from the squad.

Meanwhile, the Irish management team of Anthony Tohill and Kieran McGeeney came to Australia like men possessed. Dublin photographer Ray McManus, a veteran of six Tours, was shocked when he watched Ireland’s first session at the Whitten Oval. It was the most robust and intense training he had ever witnessed on Australian soil.

Beaten by the Aussies in 2010, the Irish management team were determined to make amends and they travelled to the southern hemisphere with a focus and desire that is normally reserved for Championship football. The Irish players were banned from tweeting. Late attendance at meetings resulted in a $20 fine which was donated to charity. The Irish media, who had travelled 13,000 miles to cover the event, were kept at arm’s length.

Not surprisingly, Ireland hammered the pathetic Australians. The problem was, nobody really cared.

In many ways, Ireland were the victims of their own success. The management and the players deserved great credit. The team was superbly prepared. But the Australians were so inept, they completely undermined the excellence of Ireland’s performance.

After another trouncing in Ireland last year, the Australians have finally got their act together. But this Irish squad is walking into the lion’s den.

Staging the Test later in the year means the AFL stars have returned to pre-season training so they’ve no objection to taking part.

And the Australian public will have no problem identifying the players in this year’s squad.

To qualify for selection, every player had to be a current or former All-Australian. Not only is this Aussie panel jam-packed with talent, it’s full of leaders. Joel Selwood (Geelong), Travis Boak (Port Adelaide), Luke Hodge (Hawthorn), Jobe Watson (Essendon), Nick Riewoldt (St Kilda), Jarrad McVeigh (Sydney Swans) and Kieren Jack (Sydney Swans) are all captains of their respective clubs. (McVeigh and Jack and joint-captains at Sydney).

Selwood is a four-time All-Australian. So is Brent Harvey, who was named on the North Melbourne Team of the Century. Nick Riewoldt is five-time All-Australian. Jobe Watson won the Brownlow Medal in 2012.

The AFL coaches picked Robbie Gray as their Player of the Year. The list of honours and awards goes on and on.

When the Australians beat Ireland in 2010, they relied heavily on the brilliance of Adam Goodes, the Brownlow medallist in 2003 and 2006.

Goodes was in a different class, and it showed. Ireland couldn’t deal with him. Now, Paul Earley has to prepare for an Australian team that is crammed full of extraordinarily talented players like Goodes.

In 2011, Anthony Tohill placed a major emphasis on size and power. He picked a team of giants. At 6ft 2in, Michael Murphy was only the seventh tallest player in the squad. Murphy stood in the shadow of Kieran Donaghy (6ft 5in), Brendan Murphy (6ft 5in), Tommy Walsh (6ft 5in), Tadhg Kennelly (6ft 3in), Joe McMahon (6ft 3in), Kevin Reilly (6ft 3in) and Aidan Walsh (6ft 3in).

The AFL contingent of Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly, Zac Tuohy and Pearse Hanley made a huge contribution to Ireland’s victory. Hanley is the only AFL player in this year’s squad.

To compound Ireland’s difficulties, the rules have been changed to suit Australia. The number of consecutive hand-passes had been increased from four to six and all kick-outs must now go beyond the 45-metre line. Ireland goalkeeper Niall Morgan must somehow find a way to bypass the 6ft 8in Nic Naitanui.

Under the old rules, it would have been fascinating to discover how the Irish squad of 2011 would have fared against this year’s stellar Australian line-up.

As things stand, this Ireland squad is going to struggle. The odds are stacked against them. The ultra-cautious bookies rank them as 13/8 shots. That’s incredibly mean.

But it’s doesn’t really matter. If Ireland were 1000/1, I’d still be reluctant to put hard cash on them.


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