Aussies keep composure to secure series win
SEÁN MORAN at Croke Park
Ireland (1-11-13) 52 Australia (0-14-13) 55: AUSTRALIA RECORDED a deserved series victory after Saturday’s night’s second International Rules Test at Croke Park. There were, however, enough twists and turns on the way to that eminently foreseeable outcome to restore a cautious optimism about the future of the game.
It wasn’t quite that Anthony Tohill’s team confounded their extensive panel of critics, but this was a much improved performance compared to a week previously in Limerick and it suggested a verdict of “not proven” on the charge that Ireland are incapable of competing with the rapidly evolving Australian challenge.
There will have been sighs of relief at the discipline and sportsmanship demonstrated by both teams. A brief confrontation early in the match threatened disorder but those involved got on with the game.
Leaving aside the existential angst that stalks the internationals, the match was humdrum enough for the first half, with the visitors building an 11-point lead on the night and a fairly conclusive looking 18-point series advantage.
Whether Ireland were actually improving as the Test progressed or whether it was simply a question of defiance and desperation in the face of what appeared to be an unfolding humiliation, the home team battled through the final two quarters, winning both and, with seven minutes left, had put themselves into a four-point lead and incredibly poised for what would have been the sensational larceny of a series victory.
Against all logical expectation Ireland were finishing the stronger just as they had a week earlier.
Faced with the sort of sustained pressure they had all too rarely encountered throughout the series, the Australians wilted but, crucially – and on this year’s evidence, characteristically – had sufficient composure to turn the tide and pick off late scores to edge the Test.
As well as that composure, the winners had a further advantage in the consistency of their best players. Captain Adam Goodes, whose generous acceptance speech on lifting the Cormac McAnallen Cup summed up the healthier atmosphere in which the game is now played, was again an impressive threat in front of goal and ended up as the series top scorer with 19 points.
Dane Swan was awarded the Jim Stynes medal for AFL player of the series by following up his 36 possessions in the first Test with fewer moments on the ball but an equally profound influence, contributing 10 points on Saturday including the four that levelled the Test in the dying moments.
There should also be mention of their goalkeeper, Dustin Fletcher, who made his name originally as the AFL’s most reliable distributor but on Saturday also made a couple of crucial interventions to deny Daniel Goulding in the 25th minute and, at the very end, when recovering his position to thwart Leighton Glynn’s attempt to steer the ball into the unguarded net, which would have given Ireland the consolation of Test victory.
Ireland didn’t have that consistency. Goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton, his team’s best player in Limerick, found his kick-outs under intense pressure and, in common with many in defence, turned over possession too often, although his composure in possession was again noticeable.
It was fortunate for the home team that their opponents’ sharpness with the round ball wasn’t as evident as in the first Test and a couple of good attacking possessions came to nothing.
But Australia were still conspicuously more clinical in setting up scoring chances, winning the attacking marks and executing their kicks. Todd Banfield, whose energetic movement around goal and accuracy proved that the game isn’t the preserve of big players, again racked up a good total with eight points.
Brad Green, the top scorer in the practice match in Cork but subdued in the first Test, sprang into action on Saturday and landed the biggest total of the night, 16 points.
For Ireland, Bernard Brogan didn’t build on the promise of his goal in Limerick, sending a similar chance for a mere one-pointer with better options available. Conversely, Michael Murphy, who provided the previous week’s most conspicuous head-in-hands moment by sending a free wide of the outer posts, stepped up in the weekend’s fourth quarter to score two magnificent points under pressure, one from a rare example of an attacking mark taken under pressure.
Brendan Coulter’s return from injury also strengthened the attack and he scored six points.
Nonetheless, Australia were cruising at half-time, 28-17, and even Ireland’s third-quarter reduction of the deficit – after an embarrassing head-count revealed them to have 16 men on the field – owed much to James Kavanagh’s six-pointer, drilled into the net after a brave stretch by the excellent Kevin McKernan (Ireland’s rookie of the series) and a smart step-over by Brogan opened up the goal.
The final quarter provided Ireland’s best phase of the series but it was still riddled with somewhat frenzied play and snatched attempts. Five of them went for behinds, just two of which if sent over the bar would have won the Test as well as increasing the pressure on the Australians and driving the recovery dynamic in the direction of a series win.
Laois’ Colm Begley won the GAA player-of-the-series award, deserved recognition for tireless work throughout both Tests in linking defence and attack and also for reliably economical use of the ball.
Given the AFL’s superior evolution in the international series, Ireland will be playing catch-up next year, but at least in his first series as manager, Tohill and his team will have learned a great deal about the personnel and tactics required to win the series.
IRELAND: 1. S Cluxton (Dublin); 16. C McKeever (Armagh), 10. F Hanley (Galway), 7. B Donaghy (Armagh); 14. S McDermott (Roscommon), 4. G Canty (Cork), 20. K Reilly (Meath); 22. T Walsh (Kerry and St Kilda), 2. C Begley (Laois); 8. L Glynn (Wicklow), 15. S McDonnell (Armagh, capt), 13. T Kennelly (Kerry and Sydney Swans); 6. M Clarke (Down), 5. S Cavanagh (Tyrone), 3. B Brogan (Dublin). Interchange: 9. D Goulding (Cork), 11. J Kavanagh (Kildare), 12. P Keenan (Louth), 18. B Murphy (Carlow), 19. M Murphy (Donegal), 21. M Shields (Cork), 26. B Coulter (Down).
Scorers: Kavanagh 6 (1-0-0), Coulter 6 (0-2-0), M Murphy 6 (0-2-0), Brogan 5 (0-1-2), McDonnell 5 (0-1-2), Cavanagh 5 (0-1-2), McKernan 5 (0-1-2), Begley 4 (0-1-1), B Murphy 4 (0-1-1), Walsh 3 (0-0-3), Kennelly 3 (0-1-0).
AUSTRALIA: 31. D Fletcher (Essendon); 7. J Frawley (Melbourne), 12. T Goldsack (Collingwood) 9. G Ibbotson (Fremantle); 41. P Duffield (Fremantle), 42. L Picken (Western Bulldogs), 2. B Gibbs (Carlton); 4. D Cross (Western Bulldogs), 36. D Swan (Collingwood); 1. T Varcoe (Geelong Cats), 18. B Green (Melbourne), 32. P Dangerfield (Adelaide Crows); 11. L Montagna (St Kilda), 37. A Goodes (Sydney Swans, capt), 17. T Banfield (Brisbane Lions). Interchange: 3. J McVeigh (Sydney Swans), 5. M Boyd (Western Bulldogs), 6. K Simpson (Carlton), 8. J Riewoldt (Richmond), 14. S Gilbert (St Kilda), 15. K Jack (Sydney Swans), 19. E Betts (Carlton), 40. D Wojcinski (Geelong).
Scorers: Green 16 (0-4-4), Swan 10 (0-3-1), Banfield 8 (0-2-2), Goodes 7 (0-2-1), McVeigh 4 (0-1-1), Montagna 4 (0-1-1), Betts 3 (0-1-0), Frawley 1 (0-0-1), Dangerfield 1 (0-0-1), Jack 1 (0-0-1).
Referees: P McEnaney (GAA), B Rosebury (AFL).
Players of the series: GAA – Colm Begley (Laois). AFL – Dane Swan (Collingwood).
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