First of all, John O’Keeffe’s squad was seriously undermined by the unavailability of at least half a dozen key players with a proven track record in this code.
Secondly, the combination of some poor passing and sloppy finishing and, on the Australian side, a greater level of consistency over three of the four quarters which was hugely influenced by the power of big full-forward Barry Hall, meant the outcome was inevitable.
For all their faults, Ireland put up a brave fight against the professional Australian side and are not without hope of redeeming themselves in Melbourne in a week. And, for this they can thank goalkeeper Enda Murphy for stopping a certain goal in the closing minutes because, on this form, a 16-point deficit would be next to impossible to wipe out. In the event, Gary Lyon’s superbly prepared side had the distinction of winning on home soil for the first time since 1990 and did so impressively.
The Irish team virtually dominated the opening quarter, with Armagh sharpshooter Steven McDonnell contributing 12 points, but, as Lyon admitted afterwards, Australia were quite poor during this period. A sixth-minute goal from Benny Coulter gave Ireland the boost they needed and by the first break they were 14 points clear, 25-11. However, they managed just an additional 21 points over the remaining hour which was indicative of their problems.
Notably, while Cormac McAnallen had been fairly successful in preventing Hall from winning clean possession at the start, he caused the Tyrone star and the Irish defence in general quite a deal of trouble in the second quarter and remained a potent threat for all of the time he spent on the field.
In the meantime, McDonnell was taken off for a rest and despite the outstanding leadership of team captain Graham Canty and strong play from the like of Sean Marty Lockhart, Ciaran McManus, Kieran McGeeney and Tom Kelly, Ireland struggled in attack.
Colin Corkery went on but hardly saw the ball and wasn’t to reappear after a short time on the field. With Hall putting over two three-pointers and Nathan Browne also prominent, Australia created much more openings and improved significantly on their finishing. Specifically, their tackling expertise regularly frustrated Irish efforts, with the result that scoring opportunities were severely limited and their lead was reduced at 32-27.
Australia took the lead for the first time five minutes from the end of the third quarter and appropriately the honour fell to Hall, fourth highest kicker in the AFL this year and a highly rated boxer. What made it possible was a Brad Johnson goal shortly before, resulting from a low ball which McAnallen had the misfortune to put into his own net. And, to cap it all, Ireland conceded a third goal with a well-taken Chris Johnston penalty.
Australia enjoyed a six-point lead, 47-41, going into the final quarter and while they came under a lot of pressure, they dealt with it capably and confidently. Stephen Kelly used his speed to good effect, McManus made a few strong bursts forward and Canty played himself to a standstill.
However, while the overall effort was admirable, good approach work was spoiled by bad distribution and, worst of all, wayward kicking.
And yet, it could have been worse had not Murphy saved from Harvey when a goal would surely have resulted if he’d passed to an unmarked Hall.
It was a sobering lesson for the Irish and a night of special celebration for the home players.
Scorers: Australia: B Hall 13; B Johnston 7; S Crawford, C Johnson 6 each; N Browne 5; C Bizzell 4; P Haselby, L Hayes, B Harvey, M Pavlich 3 each; A Simpson 2; D Wells 1.
Ireland: S McDonnell 16; B Coulter 10; J Higgins, K Hughes, C McManus, P Joyce, K McGeeney 3 each; T Kelly 2; S Kelly, D Dolan, B McDonald 1 each.
AUSTRALIA: G Jakovich; L Power, M Scarlett, J Crouch; B Johnson, L Hayes, B Kirk; S Crawford - captain, C Johnson; A Simpson, B Hall, P Haselby; N Brown, M Pavlich, D Wells. Inter-change: R Smith, R Murphy, J Rawlings, L Barry, M Bickley, D Wirrpunda, B Harvey, L Barry.
IRELAND: E Murphy (Kildare); C McAnallen (Tyrone), P Christie (Dublin), S M Lockhart (Derry); G Canty (Cork, captain), K McGeeney (Armagh), A Lynch (Cork); C McManus (Offaly), P McGrane (Armagh); J Bergin (Galway), P Joyce (Galway), B Coulter (Down); S McDonnell (Armagh), B McDonald (Laois), D Dolan (Westmeath). Inter-change players: K Hughes (Tyrone), T Kelly (Laois, C Corkery (Cork), G Cox (Roscommon), S Ryan (Dublin), J Higgins (Laois), C Daly (Offaly), S Kelly (Limerick),
Referees: B. White (Ireland) and S. McBurney (Australia).