Ireland may win the battle but not the war
International Rules second test: Australia v Ireland (Saturday, 8.45am, Domain Stadium, Perth, live on RTÉ2)
CHASING a ten-point deficit in the not-quite-as-early hours this morning, Ireland will be hoping to enjoy a few home comforts in their bid to retain the Cormac McAnallen Cup.
Rain in Perth is a rare occurrence at this time of year. All week the temperature has been touching the low 30s but, with a more opulent and visible sun than in Adelaide and a higher level of humidity, it has felt the warmest of all.
But just in time, the clouds are rolling it. It’s expected to be 22 degrees and after a few light showers yesterday, it could well be wet during the second test, which would be a welcome relief for Joe Kernan’s men.
There’s also the sea of green that will follow them to the Domain Stadium, or Subiaco Oval as they still prefer to call it, for what will be the last game ever played there before the opening of the new 60,000-seater Perth Stadium.
While there were hundreds of Irish milling around Adelaide last weekend, it will be thousands in the West Australian city today. Home to the bulk of the country’s construction industry, it is a home from home for the ex-patriated.
And that should mean that of the 43,000 capacity, at least a third are expected to be supporting the visitors in what’s likely to be a full house – although to call it a sellout would be something of a false narrative on its popularity given that the AFL stores in Perth city centre have been handing out free tickets in recent days.
Speaking on Thursday morning, Kernan said that he has “never been more positive about anything in my life”, and you can point easily to his reasons for optimism.
The sickness that hit the squad running into the first test was more widespread than was initially let on. On top of the two that it did take out, it left several others having to play in less than 100 per cent condition.
It was as well that it just fell short of taking out Michael Murphy, who carried the can in attack with Conor McManus.
And while Pearce Hanley’s a big loss, Darren Hughes is the ideal kind of replacement. His ability to know where to be and to scrap for loose ball will be invaluable in helping to arrest the middle third issues.
Ireland took as many marks as Australia last weekend but it was the spell from the middle of the second quarter until the end of the third that stood out. Chris Scott’s side picked up everything and built up waves of pressure in which Ireland just about managed to stay standing.
The Irish will also have 2010 All-Ireland winner Ciaran Sheehan available. His injury disrupted season has led to limbo after Carlton opted not to renew his contract, so today’s game could act as a career-saving shop window for him in terms of the AFL.
Joe Kernan has to let someone down to cut the 24 down to 23, but having a full bench to choose from could also be invaluable should Ireland manage their interchange policy well enough.
And then there are the goal chances. For as much as the Aussies were the better team last weekend, Ireland could easily have had five or six goals. Dealing with goalkeeper Brendon Goddard’s sweeping style is something they’ll have looked at this week with a view to getting a better return on one-on-ones.
Last week underlined the reality that Ireland need something close to absolute perfection to win the series.
Traditionally the extra week has always seen an improvement in Australia in terms of their use of the round ball, and given their quality surprised Ireland even the first day, you imagine they will cause plenty of trouble.
They will be without Paddy Ryder, who was due to face court in Adelaide on charges of hindering police and assaulting a police officer, only for the charges to be dropped. He has opted against playing nonetheless.
Scott Pendlebury’s broken finger rules him out, and with only one replacement – Shaun Higgins of North Melbourne – called up, the home squad is lighter in terms of numbers.
There will tactical adjustments on both sides. The Aussies played a possession-based game last weekend that was designed to suck the legs from the Irish in the sweltering heat.
They won’t have the luxury of such temperatures tomorrow, and will have to contend with a fresher Irish side with a numerical advantage.
Chris Scott’s side could well be a bit more direct but as he alluded to after the first game, it’s unlikely that he will replicate the same defensive move that caught the men in light green out.
Goddard playing as the one-man full-back line at times was something that Ireland threatened to expose early on, but ultimately couldn’t quite as a combination of those missed chances and long periods of Australian domination quelled the chance.
They will be determined to get a better handle on McManus and Murphy. Scott played up Ireland’s other scoring threats after the first test, and there is an emphasis on Paul Geaney – who isn’t really a half-forward – and Conor Sweeney in particular to give the umpires a bit of work.
A fully fit Murphy will play inside again tomorrow, though Kernan has hinted that he may use captain Aidan O’Shea in an alternating role between the middle and inside.
Gary Brennan being fully recovered from illness will add to their options in the middle third.
Ireland’s supposed advantage with the round ball never materialised, with the problems being put down to not getting enough pressure on Australia’s kickers around the middle.
If they’re getting unpressurised kicks away, chances are the damage is already done. Quite how any defender left one-on-one with the likes of Nat Fyfe, Ben Brown or Chad Wingard would be expected to contain them beneath good service is anyone’s guess.
Ireland have only recovered from defeat in the first test to win the second three times in the series’ history, the last in 2003, when a three-point victory in the MCG wasn’t enough to rescue overall success.
A similar result could well be on the cards tomorrow. Ireland to win the test, but Australia to win back the trophy.
Ireland (from): N Morgan, K Clarke, E Cadogan, B Harrison; C Barrett, S Powter, Z Tuohy, P Murphy, K O’Connell, P Crowley; K Feely, N Grimley, G Brennan, A O’Shea; D Hughes, C Sheehan, N Sludden, S Walsh; P Geaney, M Murphy, C McManus, C Sweeney
Australia: B Goddard; S Burgoyne, R Tarrant, K Simpson, J Gunston, R Laird, T Boak, L Shuey; D Zorko, S Higgins, M Hibberd, P Dangerfield; Z Merritt, N Jetta, R Sloane; E Betts, N Fyfe, C Wingard, B Brown