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Greatest Dublin Sporting Events: Aussies undone by Irish true spirit and tactics - International Series 1998

 

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PILE-UP: Ireland’s Darren Fay (r) gets tangled up with Australia’s Scott Camporeale and Anthony Stevens. Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile

PILE-UP: Ireland’s Darren Fay (r) gets tangled up with Australia’s Scott Camporeale and Anthony Stevens. Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile

PILE-UP: Ireland’s Darren Fay (r) gets tangled up with Australia’s Scott Camporeale and Anthony Stevens. Photo: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile

It was at the end of the third period of play when the Mexican Wave reached Bertie Ahern.

In keeping with the upbeat mood that October afternoon in 1998, the Taoiseach joined in and surfed the enthusiasm and sense of pride that washed around Croke Park.

After eight years in the doldrums, the International Rules series had been reintroduced by GAA and AFL executives.

Two matches were played in Dublin. And, while Australia won the first match, Ireland responded with a win in the second match and won the series on aggregate score.

Having watched the thrilling opening fixture on television, the supporters responded too and over 12,000 more fans attended the second game.

There had been reluctance by many GAA followers to support the reintroduction of a hybrid game which was an amalgamation of the rules of both Gaelic football and the Australian Rules code, which the governing authorities from both sides called 'International Rules'.

The initiative originated in the 1960s and captured the imagination but when interest waned for the matches staged in Australia in 1990, the biannual series was dropped.

From the start, intense physicality had been a key feature of the matches.

Meath full-back Jack Quinn, who played against the visitors in 1967, recalled how the big, muscular professionals from Down Under "kicked the shite out of us".

Critics of the venture pointed to episodes of foul play verging on thuggery.

Colm O'Rourke was appointed coach of the Ireland squad for the matches that reintroduced the series in 1998.

"The idea was that if it was going to survive at all it was going to survive in a different way," said the Skryne man. "The games that year were good but the games in Australia the following year were, to me, the best quality games that we've seen in it."

But those two home matches were more than mere curtain-raisers for Ireland's performances Down Under in 1999.

The opening match had been almost incident-free and the skills displayed were, at times, breathtaking, particularly the Australians' mastery of high-catching.

It was Ireland who, despite the ferocious high tempo set by the visitors, appeared to control the game.

While Ireland were ahead on the scoreboard throughout the opening match, the Australians had a finely-tuned fourth-quarter game strategy.

Schemozzle

"There was a bit of a shemozzle the first day," admitted Colm, referring to the ruck at the end of the third quarter when a number of Ireland players got unceremoniously dumped on the hallowed turf.

A bigger disappointment was to follow as the fitness levels of the Australian professionals began to make a difference.

With the wind, they clawed back Ireland's 19-point advantage and, when the match was poised at 61 points apiece, broke the hearts of O'Rourke's squad with a point by Scott Camporeale a minute before the final hooter sounded to give them victory.

Another of the Aussie secret weapons was the introduction in the third quarter of Dubliner Jim Stynes, who expertly directed the visitors' attacks and, with an insightful 40-yard pass, set up their crucial final goal.

O'Rourke and his selectors, Mickey Moran and John O'Keeffe, knew they had a job on their hands to turn things around in a week.

There was a hint of clever mind games by O'Rourke when he called for Jim Stynes, who'd played for Ireland in 1990, to be allowed to tog out in green with his brother Brian for the finale.

That second eagerly-anticipated match attracted over 35,000 and, although Jim was again one of Australia's key interchange players, the end result was different.

"The quality of the football in the second game was much better," recalls Colm O'Rourke. "Michael Donnellan (Galway) was one of the stars of the second game. And John McDermott (Meath), of course, was also one of the main men in the Irish side because he was tasked with marking Wayne Carey (the North Melbourne star known as 'The King') who was the big hero of Australia Rules at the time."

Carey, who'd totalled 16 points in the first match, was held to a single point in the second game.

Carey wasn't the only big name on the Australian side.

"You had Matthew Lloyd (Essendon's leading goalscorer) who was also one of the big players in Australia at the time," recalled Colm. "Both of them travelled so I think the Irish fellas acquitted themselves very well against them."

Peter Canavan played a blinder in the second match.

Slipping his markers like quicksilver, he scored an impressive 16 points which included a cracking goal.

He also linked up dramatically with Jarlath Fallon, helping set up some of the Galway player's 14-point personal tally.

The Ireland selectors got their tactics right on the day but O'Rourke said: "It was a brilliant team. Like a league of nations. It was easy to manage a group when you had such an amount of talented players. Peter Canavan (Tyrone), Anthony Tohill (Derry), John McDermott (Meath), Trevor Giles (Meath), Michael Donnellan (Galway)… players of a generation, really."

As expected the Ireland defence came under pressure but a full-back line of Séamus Moynihan (Kerry), Darren Fay (Meath) and Seán Marty Lockhart (Derry) soaked up the challenge.

Ahead of them, Glenn Ryan (Kildare) proved unshakable.

Galway were All-Ireland champions that year and Jarlath Fallon, Sean Óg de Paor and Michael Donnellan were on fire, contributing a total of 27 points between them in a spree that saw the three men score goals on the day.

"We had a lot of very skilful ball players and they had as much pride in representing their country as anybody in any other sport," recalled O'Rourke. "The game was a lot faster than the normal game and we learned that you needed to substitute more often. The thing was to try to plan for everybody getting a rest."

A shrew tactician and reader of the game, O'Rourke outplayed the Aussies at their own game.

"You plan backwards as well," he says cryptically. "So that the best players were on for the last ten minutes when you could do most damage."

And it wasn't just on the day that the selectors got things right. The pre-planning had been meticulous.

Emphasis

"We did a lot of training and the whole emphasis at the time was on never to carry the ball into a tackle," reveals Colm. "And when the ball was on the ground not to pick it up but to try and play it on the ground, soccer style. Chip it to somebody.

"Don't go down to pick it up or you're going to get absolutely milled by the Australians. I think those two things worked well."

Before the game, the late Eugene McGee noted that the Irish players' pride had been dented by the last-minute defeat in the opening match.

When he wondered if the team would avail of the opportunity to redeem themselves in the second match, you felt he knew the answer.

Ireland won the match 67-56, giving them a series win on 128-118 which set things up nicely for the tests in Australia the following year.