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Irish eyes are on back-to-back championships

  • Saturday, July 30 2005 @ 01:04 am ACST
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International Cup 2005

As reigning International Cup champions, the pressure is on Ireland to defend their title. Their league was only young when they lifted the first cup, so with more experience they will be difficult to beat.

Australian footy fans are familiar with Gaelic football through the expatriate Irish living Down Under and the local competitions they've started, and particularly through the International Rules series which each year sees the All-Australian AFL team play two matches of "compromise" International Rules against the GAA's best. The games use a hybrid of the rules from Gaelic and Australian Rules football. Aussie fans are always impressed by the speed and skill of the Irish players who are not professional sportsmen, unlike their opponents.

It's this Gaelic football background that allows the Irish to transition relatively easily to Aussie Rules and many of the Irish team travelling to Melbourne for the 2005 Australian Football International Cup have grown up playing Australian Rules' round ball cousin. In 2002, with their league just a couple of years old, the "Green Machine" stunned unwary rivals in taking out the inaugural International Cup undefeated. The final at the MCG was tighter than the scoreboard indicated, and with runners-up Papua New Guinea developing an array of young talent since then, it would be easy to predict the Irish will find 2005 much tougher. But on their side is the extra years of Australian footy that their top players now have. The Australian Rules Football League Ireland only started in 2000, so at the first Cup most players had only been playing at most 2 years. This time some of the team will have more than doubled their experience and this could see them raise their performances dramatically.

One of the players heading to Australia is John Enright (pictured, on the far left in action for the Dublin Demons against the Leeside Lions). His story is somewhat unique, in that he grew up playing Gaelic football in his Irish hometown of Kerry, then took up Aussie Rules whilst working in Canada. "I had only seen Aussie Rules a handful of times on TV and of course the International Rules series". Given the annual debate in Australia about the future of the series, Enright's thoughts are interesting - "The International Rules series definitely helps to promote Australian Rules football to the masses in Ireland. Large amounts of press coverage from the Irish media ensure that it’s the main talking point in Ireland come early October. Yeah I think it’s a fair point that I started playing Aussie Rules because of the International Rules series".

The strong Ontario Australian Football League club the Downtown Toronto Dingos gave him his Aussie Rules start (and dubbed him "Stynesy") and upon returning to Ireland he was soon continuing both his Gaelic and Australian Rules careers. In the great tradition of Australian football, where volunteers are the lifeblood of almost every club, from amateur leagues to country sides to the AFL, Enright saw the need for someone to help run the ARFLI website and quickly put his hand up for the job. With experience now in competitions in different countries, what differences does he see between Canadian and Irish leagues? "In Ireland we play most of the games on GAA pitches with the corners rounded off. The games in Ireland are tighter and the defences are meaner. On reflection, the Ontario league is a faster freer flowing game with more emphasis on the forward line than the defence".

Enright, a halfback flanker, will arrive in Australia with his fellow Irishmen just a couple of days before their first match. "When we arrive we have to lose the jet lag pretty quickly - we'll have a day of light training, relaxing and preparing for the first match of the tournament". Coming from the European summer, some players may have expected the stereotypical Australian warm climate, but being winter, temperatures around 14 degrees Celsius can be expected, with rain on some days. "Never thought it would be warmer in Ireland than Australia!"

Although the main focus will be on winning the second International Cup, for amateur players travelling to the opposite side of the world, the entire tour will be something to savour. "I guess my own key goals are to totally enjoy the whole experience - meet as many people as possible... talk to people playing the game in different countries and find out how our views of Aussie Rules football are the same, or different. All those pleasantries will stop though the minute I walk across the white line and onto the footie field. Then I'm going to be 100% focused on my game and do myself proud on the International stage. At the end of the day we're heading out there to defend our trophy and we're going to give it everything we've got."

Their first match will be against Nauru at Murphy Reserve, Port Melbourne, at 1pm Wednesday 8th August. Hopefully some of Melbourne's Irish expats can get down to the match to support them as they aim to continue their unbeaten run in international footy.