Ireland's very own Ashes

With the Ashes almost upon us, skysports.com's Jamie Casey enlightens us on a less-celebrated Test series

By Jamie Casey.   Last Updated: 10/11/10 6:03pm

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Croke Park will host the second Test of the International Rules series between Ireland and Australia.

Croke Park will host the second Test of the International Rules series between Ireland and Australia.

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As Irishman Eoin Morgan prepares to touch down in Australia with the England national cricket team on Saturday ahead of next month's Ashes, a squad of compatriots of his will be gearing up for the closing Test of a very different ball game series with the Aussies.

Cast an eye down skysports.com's long list of sporting events in the month of October and it is perhaps unsurprising that both the 23rd and the 30th remain vacant. Nothing spring to mind? Allow me to fill you in.

The 2010 International Rules Football two-Test series between Ireland and Australia got underway on the Emerald Isle last weekend, with the visitors - professional Australian Rules Footballers - drawing first blood against their mostly amateur opponents with a 47-40 win at the Gaelic Grounds, Limerick, where some 30,000 fans witnessed the opener.

The teams consist of Gaelic and Australian Rules footballers called up to represent their country for the hybrid sport. And, having lost the last series on their own turf in 2008, the Aussies hope to defend their first-Test lead and reclaim the crown when the series draws to a close for another year at Croke Park on Saturday night.

Mixing elements of Australian and Gaelic football, the game is played over four 18-minute quarters with a round ball on a rectangular pitch using the traditional H-shape goalposts of Gaelic Games, but with the two additional outer posts, plus a lenient refereeing stance on tackling more familiar to the 'Aussie Rules.'

Vicious

The two nations contested the first official International Rules series in 1998 but its notoriously vicious nature, as patriotic blood tends to boil, has disrupted the regularity of the event, preventing the fixture from becoming a mainstay on the sporting calendar to date.

Squaring up against postmen, teachers and builders, Australia's brutality in the infamous 2006 series caused the Gaelic Athletic Association to pull the plug on the following year's scheduled event for fear of their players' health, notably due to Ireland's Graham Geraghty, formerly of Meath, being left unconscious after a brutal collision with Port Adelaide's Danyle Pearce.

However, the GAA and the Australian Football League then negotiated new legislation for the rebirth of the series in 2008 and, despite recession in Australia causing the postponement of the scheduled 2009 fixtures, the International Football Rules series now looks set to kick a difficult few years to the curb as it enters its third decade.

On Friday it was confirmed that the series will indeed return in October next year with Australia due to host proceedings before a break in 2012. It will return in 2013 and 2014 in the new format of two series every two years with either nation hosting one of each.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic claimed Ireland's success in Perth and Melbourne last time around was due to the hosts toning down their physicality by order of the AFL in order to protect the future of the series. That debate has once again rumbled on during this year's event, but the GAA and their counterparts continue to work closely together for their own personal benefits.

Physical advantage

Since professional Australian Rules footballers cover up to 13 kilometres on average in their 80 minute matches [Rugby Union pros, for example, average just 6km], the boys from Down Under naturally possess a superior physical advantage to their novice Irish counterparts.

However, one of Australia's supposed motivations for saving the future of the series is the opportunity to eye up new talent to bring to the AFL Premiership, and six of Ireland's 23-man panel have experience in the professional game in Australia, most notably Tadhg Kennelly - the first AFL pro to represent Ireland against Australia.

But after a disappointing night in Limerick last weekend, the home support will be expecting a better game plan and effective use of possession from the Irish, captained by Armagh's Steven McDonnell, in the more glamorous, ticket-only second Test in the immaculate 82,000+ seated stadium that is Croke Park.

History is not on their side, however, as statistics show the Aussies traditionally fare better in the second Test, suggesting the cup - named after the late Tyrone hero Cormac McAnallen - could well return to the land Down Under.

Events in Eoin Morgan's hometown of Dublin will be far from the Middlesex county cricketer's mind as he lands in Perth on Saturday. But, for the more nationalistic of Irishmen, sportsmen of the nation have their very own Ashes to contend with.

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