herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Series in safe hands of Joe

Kernan works his old magic ... but expects an even harder test next year

Philly McMahon (left) and Colm Begley of Ireland celebrate after winning the EirGrid International Rules Test against Australia at Croke Park
Philly McMahon (left) and Colm Begley of Ireland celebrate after winning the EirGrid International Rules Test against Australia at Croke Park

For as long as this roller coaster sporting marriage has lasted, veering from kisses to chaos and threatened divorce, the job of an International Rules manager has been only partially about preparing a team for battle.

An equally important part of the job-spec has been that of unofficial cheerleader - playing the PR game, selling an idea and selling seats.

Joe Kernan has been good at the latter. On Saturday night, the Armagh legend proved even better at the former.

So Ireland reclaimed the Cormac McAnallen Cup thanks to a rampaging first half delivering a hat-trick of goals - a brace off either foot from the irrepressible Aidan O'Shea, followed by a clinical penalty from Conor McManus.

Then they had the good grace to retreat into their shell, inviting on an Australian comeback that ensured an edge-of-the-seat finale of the type so infrequently witnessed during these series.

Final touch

After Eddie Betts got the final fisted touch, amid three jumping Aussies, for their only goal, and Robbie Gray quickly followed up with an over, an Irish lead that had twice stretched to 21 points was reduced to just three.

Briefly, the hosts tottered; but they steadied in the last few minutes and Bernard Brogan's insurance 'behind' sealed a deserved 56-52 victory.

More significantly, that perennial question - does the series have a future? - had been emphatically put to bed. Both teams showed up - albeit with an asterisk attached to Australia's often-AWOL full-back line, whose kamikaze high line in the first half had some of us wondering if a rule banishing blanket defence under pain of execution had been rushed through an eve-of-test Special Congress.

Messrs Brogan (13 points), O'Shea (15) and McManus (17) were the principal beneficiaries of this (non) marking strategy, sharing 45 of Ireland's 56-point tally. Brogan took home the official award as best Irish player; sharp and all as the skipper was, we're struggling to comprehend how O'Shea's magnificent dual role as swashbuckling inside assassin and soaring midfielder was overlooked.

Revitalised

So what next? The concept appears revitalised; it might even survive a regression to lop-sided ways next year.

Chances are that won't happen. For as Kernan remarked: "We know going to Australia next year it will be harder. But they make the competition, not just us. The two of us doing the things together make it ... if they don't send the good players it's no good, it's not going to work. But I think, in fairness to them, they have made the decision that's the way it's going to be."

Losing in Croke Park will hurt the professional pride of our star-studded AFL tourists, making it doubly likely that they'll select another formidable line-up next year. All the vibes suggest a return to a two-match format; long-term the series needs this to make it sustainable, whatever about talk of a New York test hardening into reality.

Like his manager, Brogan has excelled not just in his primary role but in his effusive PR.

"On Friday night," he revealed, "we all had a really honest chat and afterwards Joe said to me 'We're buzzing, there's a great feeling around this camp.' And I says 'We're going to do something special here'."

Last word to Kernan: "The respect these boys have for each other is immense. In club football we knock the sh** out of each other in our own counties; in county we knock the sh** out of each other; but when we go together, we do gel and we do mix, and there is ultimate respect."

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