For the second successive year, the one-off test was a nail-biter, but this time the roles were reversed. Australia were beaten but unbowed, just as Ireland were in Perth last year. The losing players were again left wanting more, as were the spectators at Croke Park.
A two-test series is all but confirmed for next year but, while Ireland may have been successful on Saturday, the fate of the concept remains with Australia, and whether they will be able to attract as accomplished a group of players as this crew in 2016. Pride may just compel the AFL’s best to lace up again.
Watched by a 38,386 crowd, Ireland were left hanging on at the end. Leading by 21 points on two occasions in the third quarter and by 20 at half-time (43-23), by the end of that ‘championship quarter’ they had seen their advantage sliced to 11.
An Eddie Betts goal with five minutes remaining had Ireland on tenterhooks and the margin was narrowed to three points when Robbie Gray notched his third over of the game.
Ireland’s experience, though, came to the fore as they effectively killed the clock through a series of marks. Clare’s Gary Brennan was a key figure in retaining possession — “I think everyone in the whole country would be proud of him,” enthused Irish manager Joe Kernan — and captain Bernard Brogan’s behind score gave them the bit of comfort they needed.
Much like Ireland in Perth last year, Australia were left to rue the lack of a second test where they in all likelihood would have improved. But little can be detracted from an Irish performance that should be acknowledged as one of the finest in the history of International Rules — it wasn’t until the second half that they kicked their first behind “wide” — and the widely-acknowledged strength of the visiting side.
Asked if it would rank as one of Ireland’s greatest victories, Kernan replied: “I think the competition is now going to a different level because of what Australia are sending over. It’s a challenge to us. I think the bookies had them 1/4 last week. That means nothing; it’s what you do on the day. It is a great win but that’s going to make it harder next year because knowing the pride Australia have they will not want to lose but that’s the challenge.
“But, yeah, it probably was one of the best wins because of quality of the team they sent and their manager Alastair Clarkson who’s won three AFLs in a row. He’s a smart cookie and he took five of his best players from Hawthorn with him. When you’re playing against the best you have to rise to that level and we did for most of it.”
From the off, the Irish players showed their intent not to be pushed around and their foot-passing was sharp. Aidan O’Shea’s first goal came by way of a Diarmuid Connolly kick to Conor McManus. He kicked across to Brogan who challenged with goalkeeper Dustin Fletcher and O’Shea ground-kicked the breaking ball to the net.
With Ireland 21-13 up after the first quarter, O’Shea delivered his second goal three minutes into the second period after he had initially set up Brogan for a goal, which was saved by Fletcher. McBrearty was a casualty in the 12th minute but at least McManus’s penalty found the net.
In total, the All-Star full-forward line contributed 45 of Ireland’s 56 points. And Kernan knows it could have been a lot more given the space they were afforded. “Certainly, if we had have got the ball into Bernard and Conor, they were free nearly all the time and on at least four occasions, the ball was in nearly too late or just a wee bit short of where we wanted.
“There are a load of things we could work on. Most importantly, did we play well? Did we take the game to them? We did all them things. The first 20 minutes we played fantastic football, the passing, the accuracy, the finishing, everything was good. The second quarter was also good, the third quarter we laboured and the same with the last quarter.
“Our boys are after having a long year as well, that was bound to have been part of it, but we never talked about that beforehand. We don’t want to put ideas into anyone’s head. What we set out to do, we achieved. We won, we played good football and we showed the series is alive and well.”
Australian coach Clarkson, who now passes the baton onto the next man having taken charge in two seasons, explained the tactic. “That was mainly due to the speed at which the Irish players were winning the ball out. We play our defence a little bit different. From what we understand of the Irish game, it’s a big flood-back type of game. We don’t play a defence in that sort of manner. You can’t defend the goals all that well because it will go straight over your head.”
C McManus 17 (1 goal 3 overs 2 behinds); A O’Shea 15 (2-1-0); B Brogan 13 (0-4-1); D Connolly 4 (0-1-1); L Keegan, D Hughes 3 each (0-1-0); P Kerrigan 1 (0-0-1).
E Betts 14 (1-2-2); N Riewoldt, R Gray 10 each (0-3-1); L Breust 4 (0-1-1); J Roughead, H Ballantyne, L Montagna, D Mundy 3 each (0-1-0); J Stringer, T Rockliff 1 each (0-0-1).
N Morgan (Edendork, Tyrone), C Begley (Parnells (Dublin), Laois), G Brennan (Clondegad, Clare), B Brogan (St Oliver Plunkett’s Eoghan Ruade, Dublin), E Cadogan (Douglas, Cork), D Connolly (St Vincent’s, Dublin), P Cribbin (Johnstownbridge, Kildare), M Donnelly (Trillick, Tyrone), E Doyle (Naas, Kildare), P Harte (Errigal Ciarán, Tyrone), D Hughes (Scotstown, Monaghan), L Keegan (Westport, Mayo), P Kerrigan (Nemo Rangers, Cork), P McBrearty (Kilcar, Donegal), J McCaffrey (Clontarf, Dublin), C McDonald (Aherlow Gaels, Tipperary), P McMahon (Ballymun Kickhams, Dublin), C McManus (Clontibret, Monaghan), R O’Carroll (Kilmacud Crokes, Dublin), J O’Loughlin (St Brigid’s (Dublin), Laois), A O’Shea (Breaffy, Mayo), M Quinn (Emmet Óg Killoe, Longford), D Walsh (Cromane, Kerry).
D Fletcher (Essendon), H Ballantyne (Fremantle), E Betts (Adelaide Crows), G Birchall (Hawthorn), L Breust (Hawthorn), P Dangerfield (Geelong Cats), A Gaff (West Coast Eagles), B Goddard (Essendon), R Gray (Port Adelaide), D Heppell (Essendon), L Hodge (Hawthorn), S Mitchell (Hawthorn), L Montagna (St Kilda), D Mundy (Fremantle), R Murphy (Western Bulldogs), N Riewoldt (St Kilda), T Rockliff (Brisbane Lions), J Roughead (Hawthorn), N Smith (Sydney Swans), J Stringer (Western Bulldogs), H Taylor (Geelong Cats), E Wood (Western
J McQuillan (Cavan), M Nicholls (Victoria).