Brogan goal masks blemishes

IN comparison to so many of its dynamic, high-octane, hard-hitting, predecessors in so many other years, this opening round of the two-game 2010 version of the International Series was a vastly subdued affair.

Then again, and by way of explanation, this was a vastly reduced Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, the sidelines and endlines squeezed on the orders of the Irish team management, the playing area a bare minimum 130m x 80m. Consider that the Aussies are used to a pitch that measures an average of 160m x 130m (at the widest point of the ‘oval’), and that a max-size GAA pitch is 145m x 90m.

Don’t forget that this is a game designed to be fast, open, a non-stop free-flowing spectacle contested by some of the finest and fleetest athletes in both codes.

So given the measurements what chance did we have of anything other than a dire, dour, battle in which space was at a premium?

In fact, were it not for Bernard Brogan’s wonder-goal in the 13th minute of the final quarter, this latest manifestation of the International Rules game could have died a death with still another tie to play, next weekend in Croke Park.

“It might just have rescued the series,” was the verdict of Ireland team manager Anthony Tohill on Brogan’s super solo and cracking shot, a six-pointer that brought Ireland back from the dead and inspired them to a final five minutes that saw them reduce the deficit from 18 points to a more manageable seven.

On that one Tohill was right. On the decision to confine space, he was wrong.

The irony was that while that was a hometown decision (the home nation gets to decide the size of the pitch, as long as it falls within official guidelines), on this occasion it played right into the hands of the more powerful Australians. Tactically, what the Irish were trying to do was to avoid the tackle at all costs, and to this end they adopted a soccer-style hands-free approach, opting for fancy foot-flicks (because they weren’t in possession of the ball, they couldn’t be tackled) rather than risking the pickup and taking the ball into contact.

Meanwhile the Aussies stuck with what they knew. “Our natural instinct is to bend to pick the football up,” explained coach Mick Malthouse, “A lot of the boys love playing soccer but I think the effectiveness of us getting our hands on the ball meant that we had far more control of the ball than a soccer kick...”

Oh, it made for such frustrating viewing, from an Irish perspective.

“Pick up the bloody ball will you!” screamed one frustrated supporter, but he was shouting on behalf of thousands, as yet another Irish player put boot to ball rather than bend and pick and risk being immediately engulfed.

Indeed there was very little real physical contact on either side, and when a young streaker braved the chill and did a little gallop onto the field during the break between the third and fourth quarters, a comment that “it’s the first real tackle we’ve seen all night!” wasn’t far off the mark.

It was all so frantic as the Irish players especially opted for soccer skills with which they are so unfamiliar, rather than trust their instincts – no space, you see, no room for manoeuvre, for the home team to show their assorted footballing skills.

Not that the visitors were lacking in that department, because in centre-forward and team captain Adam Goodes they had the man-of-the-match, four superb ‘overs’ (that’s 0-4 in our money) while in interchange players Daniel Cross, Leigh Montagna and Todd Banfield they had three guys who were utterly comfortable with the round ball, while current Aussie Rules Players’ Association MVP Dane Swan offered outstanding leadership in the middle of the field. What’s more, says Dane, there’s better to come, next weekend: “This is our second game together and we’ve bonded pretty well over the last week – it’s only going to get better. We’ve got another week together. We’ll probably have three sessions as well so it’s going to help us improve, kicking the round ball and we can plan tactics against their soccer style. I think our ball use can get better – it was good but there was a couple of times it went out of bounds and we can improve on that.”

This is still a sport with a future, a sport with the potential to keep us in thrall, and that was evident in the electric atmosphere before the game in Limerick. Those supporters, however, need something to get them going, and to keep them going, a fact acknowledged by Ireland captain Stevie McDonnell – “It (the atmosphere) was good, any time we got a score the crowd really got behind us but we didn’t build on that. We really felt the atmosphere in the last five minutes, when we did build on it. It’s important that when we get going as a team the crowd gets behind us, that does help you out on the field.”

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Join us for a special evening of Cheltenham chat on Friday March 12 at 6.30pm with racing legend and Irish Examiner columnist Ruby Walsh, Irish Examiner racing correspondent Tommy Lyons, and former champion jockey and tv presenter Mick Fitzgerald, author of Better than Sex.

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