Mick Malthouse’s positive approach throughout — and admirably so in defeat — played a vital role in restoring the image of a game which was all but doomed after the disgraceful scenes in Croke Park two years ago.
Guided by the administrators in both sports who had worked assiduously in tidying up the rules — expertly interpreted by the referees — their work with their respective squads translated into an outstanding series.
Ireland denied Australia a third consecutive success with a fighting finish which owed much to the late goal scored by Benny Coulter. It revived their challenge after the second of three Australian goals threatened to spoil the party for Sean Cavanagh and inspirational vice-captain Graham Canty (chosen as the Irish player of the series).
At the end, the hooter signalling the finish couldn’t come soon enough after North Melbourne’s Drew Petrie put the ball in the net in the first of nearly three minutes of added time. But, it seemed to be Ireland’s destiny to honour the memory of McAnallen — a member of the last winning Irish team in Australia six years ago.
The smile on GAA President Nickey Brennan’s face at the Irish media conference later told it all. Relieved that the bad memory of 2005 in Croke Park could now ‘pass into history,’ he said what he wanted from the series was that it would be played in a proper sporting manner. “A win was a great bonus. To get both was fantastic. We have brought the series back on track. A lot of people doubted that it could happen.’’
His words were echoed by Director General Paraic Duffy who added: “You couldn’t have asked for better — two wonderful games played in the right spirit. It showed the game has a future. Mick Malthouse deserves enormous praise. The series was in good hands once he was appointed manager and Sean Boylan too.’’
With Killian Young, Marty McGrath and Paul Finlay coming into the squad in place of Tom Parsons, Pearse O’Neill and Ciaran Lyng (who flew home before the game to play in tomorrow’s Wexford hurling final), Ireland got off to a poor start. Apart from Cavanagh — who kicked two overs to leave them only three points behind at the end of the quarter (15/12) — their finishing was poor.
Australia were moving the ball quicker and with more precision, but a superb Kieran Donaghy goal early in the second quarter boosted the visitor’s confidence. Notably, Enda McGinley was a much more forceful figure than he had been in Perth and after a slow start Wicklow’s Leighton Glynn was to distinguish himself a second time.
Fintan Hanley was again very dependable, David Gallagher enhanced his reputation in goal and Canty was a powerhouse once more around half-back/midfield.
Complemented by very good work from John Keane, Aidan O’Mahony and Bryan Cullen at different stages, it meant that the hosts had very little success in ‘marking’ ball close in around the goal.
Malthouse felt his team made ‘far too many errors,’ and, in pointing out that his players had to ‘curtail their natural instincts’ in the area of tackling (shepherding) he said he was proud of their disciplined approach.
For him it was all about the coaching group ‘relaying the right message’ and the playing group ‘embracing what was at stake.’ “And we don’t want to get away from the fact that we knew exactly what was at stake,’’ he added.
After McGinley missed a great chance of goal nearing half-time, he redeemed himself quickly with one after a move involving Paddy Bradley and Michael Meehan. So, from a three-point deficit starting the second quarter, they turned over with a 15 points advantage (36/21) and they remained in front all the way to the finish.
Still, they lacked consistency in the third quarter, conceding 11 points without reply (which included a scrambled goal claimed by Marc Murphy). After having their lead reduced to six points, they finished on a high with a goal from Coulter are Meehan stole the ball off an Australian defender with some smart footwork. It saw them lead 50/33 going into the final quarter, mindful of the fact that it was at this stage last week that they came under severe pressure.
Said Cavanagh: “After a good first half and maybe an equally good third quarter, I felt that playing with the wind we should be able to push on and get three or four overs which would have seen us through. But, the Australians weren’t going to lie down. They weren’t going to be humiliated on their own turf — and they weren’t. They played some fantastic football.’’
So did the Irish, it would be acknowledged, with John Miskella excelling under pressure, Cavanagh leading by example and the likes of Joe McMahon, Paddy Bradley and a more involved Colm Begley contributing hugely. Donaghy was immense, playing himself into the ground and Canty’s tackling was really impressive. And when there were doubts about the outcome after Australia scored 14 points in a 10-minute period (with only a Cavanagh behind in response), Coulter came to the rescue with that goal.
* The consensus view would be that Pat McEnaney and his Australian counterpart Steve McBurney together gave one of the best combined refereeing performances in the history of the series.
Scorers for Ireland: B. Coulter 15, S. Cavanagh 11, K. Donaghy 9, E. McGinley 7, S. McDonnell 4, P. Bradley, P. Bradley and P. Finlay 3 each, C. Begley and L. Glynn 1 each.
Scorers for Australia: D. Petrie 12, S. Burgoyne 9, D. Wells 7, , M. Murphy 6, B. Harvey, M. Osborne, J. Brennan, D. Motlop and C. Brown 3 each, R. Crowley 2, K. Simpson 1.
IRELAND: D. Gallagher; C. McKeever, F. Hanley, J. Keane; B. Cullen, K. Reilly, A. O’Mahony; C. Begley, G. Canty; Joe McMahon, S. Cavanagh (capt.); S. McDonnell, K. Donaghy, L. Glynn. Inter-change: Justin McMahon, J. Miskella, K. Young, M. McGrath, P. Finlay, B. Coulter, A. Kernan, P. Bradley, M. Meehan.
AUSTRALIA: M. Firrito; R. Hayden, N. Bock, C. Brown; R. Crowley, D. Petrie, A. Selwood; B. Harvey, D. Wells; M. Murphy, J. Brennan, D. Rodan; M. Osborne, S. Burgoyne, M. Campbell. Inter-change: M. Boyd, N. Foley, J. Hunt, L. Montagna, D. Motlop, S. Pendlebury, B. Sewell, K. Simpson, D. Thomas.
Referees: Pat McEnaney (Ireland) and Steve McBurney (Australia).
*Attendance: 42,823 (record in MCG — 64,404 in 1999).