LAST Wednesday, Eddie Betts went to St Mary’s Park in Adelaide, the home of Gaelic games in South Australia, for a kickabout with the local GAA team. Along with his former team-mate, Anthony Wilson, Betts joined in with the players for a seven-a-side match.
Betts, who had already played five International Rules Test matches, was considered Australia’s best player coming into this Series. That status was primarily earned from his comfort with the round ball in past tests but Betts was desperate to hone his skills for a big game with an Australian side which had yet to even get together four days before Sunday’s first Test.
The Australian squad only met as a group for the first time last Thursday. That limited time-frame of preparation may seem strange, especially when most of the Australians hadn’t played competitive football since late August or early September, but that is how the Aussies conduct their business in the off-season.
The players union are very strict on the access the clubs can have with their players in the months directly after the seasons ends. Those regulations, ranging from a cap on training hours during pre-season, to a guaranteed amount of days off during the regular season, largely frame the approach the Australian management can take towards International Rules, especially on home soil.
The players union want the players to be able to do their own thing in their own time in the off-season, but, on the other hand, the Adelaide Crows – who pay Betts over $1million dollars a year – won’t have been impressed to see one of their main men playing a seven-a-side match outside the confines of the International Rules Squad.
The expansion of the AFL, which has led to a more limited off-season, is bound to dilute the interest clubs have in seeing their players strut their stuff on an International stage. Even the Australian manager, Chris Scott, has to strike a delicate balance between putting a competitive team together and not draining too much energy from his Geelong players, the club he manages, prior to the start of the new AFL season.
That mindset – and conditions - means the Australians will never take this concept as seriously as the Irish but, because they are professional players, and are comfortable at condensing their preparation in a shorter timespan than Ireland, their professional status and elite ability will always make them confident when they fully put their minds to it.
After winning the first Test in Adelaide, 63-53, Australia will be even more confident of securing the Series now on Saturday after having had 10 days together to fully prepare. Conor McManus, who top-scored with 24 points, said that the game, especially one played in over 30 degrees heat, would similarly stand to the Irish team but if Australia can produce that kind of a performance with three days preparation, the extra week of getting familiar with the round ball should take them to another level.
Australia, who have always regarded the third quarter as their dominant period in the match, smashed Ireland in that quarter by 22 points to 8. Yet they had already begun to turn the screw by the second half of the second quarter, when Ireland failed to even get a shot off at the target in a 13-minute period.
Ireland had reduced the deficit to seven points with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter when a Luke Shuey goal put the game beyond their reach. Australia scored two goals to Ireland’s one but what will disappoint Joe Kernan’s side most is that they failed to convert four more decent goalscoring chances.
Some excellent goalkeeping by Brendon Goddard, combined with the incessant heat and pressure Australia always put on the ball-carrier was an obvious factor but, apart from McManus and Michael Murphy, Ireland never got their scoring game going. Australia had four more scorers, 10 to Ireland’s six.
Ireland would have been disappointed not to have converted at least six more overs (three-pointers), and McManus said afterwards that a difference of just three points in Gaelic football terms underlined just how much Ireland are still in this Series.
They still are. There will be a far bigger crowd too in Perth for Saturday’s test but connecting this game with the public consciousness continues to be a major struggle in both countries.
Last week, the Herald Sun Newspaper ran an online poll asking their Australian readers if they would watch the upcoming Series. Voters had two choices: Yes, the best of the best are playing; No, I couldn’t care less. The Yes vote won by 61% but the content of the question was the key to the result because a player has to have been made an All Australian (equivalent of an All-Star) at least once in order to be selected.
Not all of Australia’s best players are lining out (Richmond, the AFL champions, have no representatives, just like Dublin don’t have any players on the Ireland team) but the AFL have at least grasped the importance of selection in selling International Rules to the public.
The embarrassment of the 2013 Series in Ireland was a turning point in those attitudes. Selecting the first all indigenous Australian outfit added a sense of novelty to the event but it ended in a fiasco, which Ireland won by a record 173-72 aggregate score.
Australia couldn’t countenance another nightmare and picking their top players has definitely increased the competitiveness – Australia won by 10 points in 2014, with Ireland edging the 2015 contest by four points. Sunday’s game was highly competitive again but all those results still don’t disguise how much the game struggles for a sustainable identity.
Players will always love to represent their country. That was evident from footage of the Australian dressingroom after Sunday’s match. Conversely, Ireland will have been disappointed but they will feel they can make up plenty of ground for Saturday. Australia though, will be even more confident of improving.
Especially with an extra week’s preparation together.