The crossbreed of Gaelic football and Aussie Rules continues to have its detractors, but the first contest goes ahead in Galway on Saturday, with the decider fixed for Croke Park a week later.
Not for the first time, there has been speculation that the series should be abandoned. The hybrid might come around as a curiosity for football devotees, and as an opportunity for free travel for representatives of both countries, yet the concept continues to be undermined by intimidation and violence.
Australia won comfortably last year when the second test degenerated into a shambolic exhibition of bad blood. The Irish were by no means blameless, but the Australians’ dangerous level of physicality – which they had once employed to bridge the gap in skill – was hardly necessary given that they were clearly the dominant team.
There have been discussions between both parties about toning the violence down, and harsher penalties for players who cross the line have been introduced. There is an element of spectators paying in to witness a highly physical confrontation, but the spirit of the series has been all too often lost in thuggery.
Purists are always wondering whether the investment is worth it when the format has to be shelved for another year. No one is claiming either that the match-up adds a genuine international dimension to Gaelic football as the hybrid is neither flesh nor fowl, yet its supporters see it as a creative outlet for the two codes.
It will be interesting to watch how the legendary former Meath manager, Sean Boylan, copes with the challenges of being in charge for the first time, while Armagh’s natural leader, Kieran McGeeney, is a sensible choice as Ireland captain.
While the fully professional Australians have an advantage in preparation, the Irish have already had a training weekend in France, and they will be in camp for the best part of a week before the first test. So much for amateurism, which appears to be dying on its feet anyway.
Not surprisingly, it seems that Boylan has put a premium on size in his choice of players. Kieran Donaghy, the star of Kerry’s All Ireland triumph is included, along with teammate Paul Galvin, Sean Cavanagh of Tyrone and Meath’s Graham Geraghty. Two current Aussie Rules players, Tadhg Kennelly and Colm Begley have also made the squad.
Outside of their overly-aggressive approach, there was plenty to admire about the Australians’ play last year, and they key this time will be their level of commitment. Performing well on home ground was a motivation, however, they might be more in holiday mode for this series.
Whatever about the outcome – and Ireland should be able to exact some revenge for last year’s defeat – the overall concept is on trial again. If the football is fast-flowing and entertaining as it has been on occasions in the past, then the future will be secure. But if cynicism and foul play prevail, these two tests could herald the end of the line for International Rules.
win in Heineken
First and foremost, the credit. The three Irish provinces in rugby’s European Cup kicked off their respective campaigns last weekend with a set of results that were enough to make you rub your eyes in disbelief.
Toulouse, the aristocrats of the French game, came to Belfast were they were contemptuously swept aside by Ulster by a staggering 30 points, and Leinster comfortably disposed of England’s form team Gloucester by 37-20 at Lansdowne Road. Meanwhile, the holders Munster traveled to Leicester in the English Midlands – a veritable House of Pain – and went home with a dramatic 21-19 victory.
Admittedly, it was the first series of matches on the long, twisting road to next year’s final in London, but what a start by Ireland’s representatives.
In case you’ve missed something here, less than five years ago, that sort of overall dominance would have been unheard of. Back then, the Irish sides were capable of the occasional outstanding performance, however, the confidence that exists now – despite a small pool of players – was purely aspirational.
Ulster are building a team which includes a blend of several highly promising young players such as Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris alongside the 35-year-old veteran, David Humphreys, who is still as influential as ever even though he has decided to retire from the international game.
In the past, Ulster might have been cowed by the prospect of facing a side like Toulouse that positively bristles with world-class players. Not now, and certainly not last Saturday at Ravenhill where Trimble scored two tries as the French visitors were overrun during the first half.
Obviously, Leinster are able to base their hopes around the exceptional talents of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Felipe Contepomi, and by scoring four tries against Gloucester, who are currently unbeaten in the English Premiership, they have a bonus point going into this weekend’s game against Edinburgh of Scotland.
As for Munster, they managed to withstand a second half onslaught by Leicester to snatch victory in what were appalling conditions. Leicester led by 19-18 in the dying minutes when Ronan O’Gara stepped up to kick a magnificent match-winning penalty from fully 50 meters.
Significantly, O’Gara had mentioned in an earlier newspaper interview that he reckoned some of England’s players were overhyped, and that some of Munster’s players had not been given enough credit for their overdue triumph in last season’s European Cup. Where once Irish teams traveled to England in trepidation, now they were confident they could win at both European and international levels.
O’Gara’s comments had caused quite a stir, and for a while it looked like he would have to eat his words, but he showed impressive mental strength to pull the game out of the fire. “I’ve had a difficult week to be honest,” said O’Gara later, “and people who know me know that I don’t seek controversy. I’ll always stick up for my teammates, but if I offended people I apologize.”
Despite the legitimate positive vibes surrounding Irish rugby at the moment, the realists won’t have forgotten that Toulouse played incredibly poorly in Belfast, and that both Leinster and Munster will have been more pleased with their results than their performances.
It’s clear now that O’Gara was simply reminding people how the mindset of the Ireland’s elite players has changed. That’s a good thing, but in these heady days, the underdog attitude, and the healthy chip on the shoulder should never be replaced by swagger.
Not our style.
Harrington has outside
shot at order of merit
Only one Irish golfer has ever won the European Tour’s order of merit, and as the competitive season on this side of the pond comes to a close with the Volvo Masters in Spain this week, that is unlikely to change.
Currently in second place in the money list, Padraig Harrington must take the first prize of