With the International Rules series set to begin, Daniel Keenan looks at the Irish squad and discusses how the physicality of the visitors may overwhelm the home side
Ireland begin their defence of the Cormac McAnallan Cup in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds Stadium this Saturday. Two years after winning in Melbourne as a selector, Anthony Tohill is now Ireland’s manager and he will no doubt be eager to retain the cup on Irish soil.
Tohill announced his squad last Thursday, including seven debutants, and five All-Stars. The squad also includes five players with AFL experience in the shape of former players Colm Begley, Brendan Murphy and Michael Shields, as well as present players Tadhg Kennelly and Tommy Walsh.
Kennelly returns to Ireland after a good season, playing 20 out of their 24 games in a play-off season for Sydney Swans, and he believes that his former Kerry teammate Tommy Walsh will have a big impact in the series, despite having limited game time for St. Kilda: “Tommy has had a great year. He has played a lot of games in the reserves. I have no doubt he will play senior football next year.”
However, the squad has some notable exclusions. The absence of any Kerry players, like Paul Galvin and Declan O’Sullivan, has been the subject of much debate, but with the Kingdom coming off the back of a poor season, Tohill wanted to maintain his philosophy of playing only players in form: “We invited players up who we felt were suited to playing the game and wanted to play the game and were coming in on the back of a good season.”
Galvin was dropped for just this reason, missing much of Kerry’s Championship run through suspension. The same can be said about Tyrone brothers, Joe and Justin McMahon, two of the driving forces behind Ireland’s win in 2008, who have recently had long layoffs with injury. Their possible inclusion in the Tyrone SFC Final was also a factor.
Kieran Donaghy was similarly overlooked. His club, Austin Stacks, face Dr. Crokes on Sunday in the Kerry SFC Final while O’Sullivan has a JFC Final with Dromid Pearses. Tohill will be relieved that GAA Player of the Year Bernard Brogan is now free to play due to his club, Oliver Plunketts, being knocked out of the Dublin SFC last week.
Armagh’s Stevie McDonnell, who captains the side, was given the honor of leading out his country when Down’s Benny Coulter was ruled out of the first test with a hamstring injury. Coulter is expected to be in contention for the second test in Croke Park on October 30th.
Australia have named an inexperienced 22 which includes sixteen debutants, although four players who played in the Grand Finals have travelled, namely Collingwood stars Dane Swan and Tyson Goldsack, and St Kilda’s Leigh Montagna and Sam Gilbert.
They travel without this year’s Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd, and unexpectedly, last year’s medal winner Gary Albett Jr, who was expected to make a big impact.
Despite their inexperience, the Australians have a strong team, and are much more adept in the physical elements of the game. Tohill believes that, even with the 2008 rule changes, the tackle will remain the most difficult aspect of the game for Ireland: “The tackle is a big issue. For us it is a big challenge.” Both making and taking the tackle will be difficult, in a game which is much more physical than gaelic football.
Without Kieran Donaghy, the Irish will struggle to come close to the Australian’s physicality, and in such a hard-hitting game, strength more than skill might prevail. For this reason, the professionals should overcome the amateurs in the series, but with the second game in Croke Park, don’t rule out the underdogs yet.