An Irish team, with the home support behind them, who have played with the round ball all their lives or an Australian side, who impressed when trouncing a Dublin selection by 81 points only hours after stepping off their long haul flight.
In the past three years, the away side has always emerged the victors in the International Rules series. Living together as a squad does seem to be the biggest advantage in this series. Two years ago, when the Aussies were last in Dublin, a replayed All-Ireland final and fixture congestion in club football meant Croker saw a bedraggled and exhausted Irish team.
Things are different, this time around. While Ireland will be without the likes of Darren Fay, Anthony Tohill and Dermot Earley, they have spent the last few days living in the same hotel, in an effort to foster squad spirit. The loss of many of the mainstays for the last few years may be a point of concern, but captain Seamus Moynihan has full confidence in the younger players who have stepped in.
“The young lads have been very eager and anxious to get involved and hopefully, they will rise to the occasion. Players like Darren Fay, Anthony Tohill and Dermot Earley are huge losses, but it means a beginning for a lot of the new players. It is a great honour to captain your country. We just have to go out there now and give it our best shot, do our country proud.”
Do the Aussies hold an advantage in being the travelling team? “It is not as bad as two years ago,” Moynihan said.
“Back then, there was the All-Ireland final replay, there was club games and county developments. This year, the whole thing has ran a lot more smoothly, we have three nights together before the game, and it’s not like we are going up to Dublin on the Saturday night and going out to play on the Sunday. When a team is together 24/7, it does help. Hopefully, that will stand to us.”
There was bad news yesterday for Longford’s Paul Barden. The big midfielder took ill a couple of days and with a temperature hovering around 105 degrees, will be unable to play in the series. Barden’s misery has been a silver lining for Nicholas Walsh. The ex Cavan minor, who now plays with the Melbourne Demons in the AFL, has been drafted in Barden’s place.
“Nic played on the U 17 series a few years ago, with Joe Bergin, so he knows the game,” Irish team manager John O’Keefe said.
Meanwhile, both sides has spent the week smoothing the rough edges off their game. For the Irish team, this meant more work on tackling. It is the one area that the Aussies hold the trump cards. After all, how many times have we lamented the lack of a tackle in Gaelic football.
“The tackle is their biggest advantage, and it is what we have worked hardest on getting right,” Moynihan said.
“Coming from our game, where there is no defined tackle, we have had to work on it and whereas we couldn’t take the tackle a couple of years ago, now we can. Of course, if they are gaining an advantage in the tackle, we must try and move the ball as quickly as we can.”
Gary Lyon, the Aussie manager, has used a different tack in selecting players this year. The Australian team tomorrow will no longer comprise of those behemoths usually associated with Aussie Rules. They have gone for the quicker, more skilful player.
“We have been a bit more selective this year, we have selected quicker, more skilful guys. But, we won’t be losing any physical edge just because we selected players more suited to this game. Our players have been playing our game since they were eight or nine, so they will be well prepared for any kind of physical edge. We still have some animals in our team.”
The scoring of goals has always been a problem for the Australians, but against Dublin on Wednesday, they stuck a few into the onion bag. Perhaps, the advantage of a round ball is slowly slipping from the Irish team. Without the likes of Jason Akermanis and Wayne Carey, two of Australia’s most impressive performers since the series was revived, this will be a new look Australia. But, captain Shane Crawford says the new faces are eager to meet the challenge.
“A lot of guys have come over that haven’t played before and the Dublin game was a good work out for them. They were saying the game is a lot faster than they thought it would be and you need a lot more endurance and speed because of how fast the game is. The interchange thing is good, for when you leave the game for a breather, you can notice what is happening in the game.
“Some of the guys on our side who hadn’t used a round ball before, fancied themselves as a bit of a soccer player and thought they could use their soccer skills. But, I think when you see them, you will see they are not really soccer players!”
*International Rules, Ireland v Australia, live Net 2, 3pm