Players must go back to basics, warns Tohill

TWO of the men entrusted with leading the Ireland team in this year’s International Rules Series believe many inter-county players lack the basic skills required to play Gaelic football at the top level.

Manager Anthony Tohill has captained Ireland in previous games against Australia and served as a selector under Sean Boylan before being handed the reins by Christy Cooney two months ago for the upcoming two-test series. Along with his selectors Kevin O’Brien, Eoin Liston and Sean Óg de Paor, Tohill will be traversing the country for the next three months running the rule over the one thousand or so footballers on duty with their squads in this year’s championship.

The Derry man has promised to cast his net far and wide but there has long been a perception that, while fitness levels have improved hugely in recent years, players and squads have not been so diligent in maintaining and improving ball skills. Tohill refused to accept the suggestion that players and coaches do not work on the basics but he accepted that general standards were a concern and added there was “no excuse” for players not able to execute the fundamentals.

“You saw the game at the weekend, Donegal-Down, and the difficulty players had fist-passing when they opted to fist-pass it. That’s concerning, that the basics of the game are not being coached well enough at a younger age. Maybe players aren’t doing enough on their own.”

As luck would have it, the new handpass regulations would appear to suit the International Rules’ management just fine, even though they have been met with suspicion and disgruntlement by the wider GAA fraternity. Prior to the 2006 series, fist-passes were mandatory in the hybrid code but the same underhand handpass as is currently enshrined in the GAA’s own rulebook has been deemed legal since the Irish sought such an amendment in 2006.

“It’s a big thing for our players because, no matter how seasoned a player is, it’s hard to get them to close their fist to give the fist-pass. You’re blue in the face telling players, ‘close your fist’, but in the heat of the moment they go back to what they do.”

Equally worrying for Team Ireland and Gaelic football as a whole are the declining standards in the supposedly simple art of kicking the ball, something the Australians mastered to an impressive degree when they were last on Irish shores four years ago.

O’Brien told the story yesterday of how Jack O’Shea looked out the window of the team hotel prior to one test back in 1990, noticed the swirling wind and declared that the Australians would be beaten that day. The same thing simply wouldn’t happen today and the former All Star believes that the onset of packed, zonal defences and sweepers has discouraged the long game and placed a premium on possession above everything else.

“Quite honestly, we don’t have enough lads that can kick with two feet,” added O’Brien currently a selector with Wicklow as well as the national team. “It’s an epidemic. That can only be put into people at juvenile level. With the quality of coaching in the last 15 years, there’s tremendous coaches going around and they insist on kicking with both feet.

“It’s very, very important. You could win an All-Ireland by just turning onto your weaker foot and kicking it over the bar. A lot of guys don’t trust their weak foot, which is a problem.”

The prototype of the ideal International Rules player has changed down the years, as it has in the GAA and AFL. Sheer size is still a factor, as are skill levels, but mobility is now key. The management team started its survey of talent five weeks ago with the NFL Division Four final between Limerick and Waterford at Croker and will continue in the same vein before holding trials approaching September.

Unlike recent years, there will be no foreign warm weather training camp prior to the first test on October 23 – Christy Cooney declared as much yesterday – but there should still be a handful of Irish players involved who are used to warmed climes.

Setanta O hAilpín’s goal-getting performances with Carlton “haven’t gone unnoticed”, according to Tohill who is being fed a weekly drip of information on Irish players in AFL.

“All four of us (selectors) have played the International Rules series, we’ve toured Australia, we have made friends and contacts in the AFL. It’s difficult for us. Much as I wouldn’t mind, and I’m sure some of the lads could be convinced to go to Melbourne for the weekend to keep an eye on the lads, we need someone out there who’s keeping an eye on what’s happening. It keeps your ear to the ground. We’ll be keeping an eye on how they’re progressing out there.”

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