Answering Ireland’s call

Three Ulster players Michaela Downey, Sean McGreevy and Kevin McGuckin fulfilled a dream of representing Ireland in the International Rules. Shaun Casey writes…

SEAN McGreevy thought his chances of pulling on an Ireland shirt were long gone, but 24 years after believing that dream might become a reality, he finally got to represent his country.

The former Antrim keeper was nominated for an All-Star award back in 2000 alongside Kerry’s Declan O’Keefe (the eventual winner) and Kildare’s Christy Byrne, and that’s when the notion of International Rules first entered his mind.

But it was Meath netminder Cormac Sullivan that got to take on the Aussies at Croke Park as Ireland lost both test matches by a combined total of 25 points, and McGreevy’s ambitious were dashed.

That was until he got involved with the Antrim Masters and with an Ireland over 50s squad coming together for a hybrid series against the Australians, the aim of lining out for an All-Ireland team once again raised its head.

“When I got the All-Star nomination, around that time I was told to be on standby for the Aussie Rules team and I was hoping to get the call but didn’t and that was a disappointment,” said the former Saffron shot-stopper.

“That brings you beyond just being a county footballer when you get the call up for the Irish team, but it never happened, and I was disappointed but then I put my hand up for this and it’s such a great honour.

“To get to wear that jersey and stand for the national anthem and have that feeling of representing your country, it means a lot, even at my old age!”

Like McGreevy, former Derry defender Kevin McGuckin got to experience the International Rules for the very first time when he received a call up to the over 40s panel.

After years of watching fellow Oak Leafers like Sean Marty Lockhart, Enda Muldoon, Paul McFlynn and Paddy Bradley play for Ireland, it was finally McGuckin’s time to wear the green, white and gold.

HONOUR… Former Derry defender Kevin McGuckin felt honoured to pull on the Ireland jersey

“We had a good season with the Derry Masters and then this came about, and it was something that definitely interested me right from the start,” explained the Ballinderry native.

“To pull on an Ireland jersey and to represent your country, you would never give that up, so I was keen to give it a real push. My family were happy to support me too because they understand what it means to play for your country and they’re proud as well.

“We trained at Longford Slashers, we trained in Westmeath so there were a few all-day jobs over the past few Saturdays and that was just getting to know the lads on the panel and stuff like that.

“But to go in last weekend and step out with the boys and get handed an Irish jersey, stand for the national anthem, it’s different when your family is there to watch you and you have a good crowd there as well, it’s fairly special.”

The over 50s side dominated their Australian opponents last weekend, winning the first test 63-9 and it was a clean sweep for the Irish teams as the over 40s along with the ladies team also secured victories, with the second tests coming up on Saturday.

Michaela Downey was one of Ulster’s representatives on the ladies masters team and she had an outstanding game, scoring 25 points with a Player of the Match performance in their 65-9 triumph.

Down’s first ever LGFA All-Star registered a goal, five overs and four behinds and Downey, who played in the only female International Rules series back in 2006, stole the show with a complete display.

In her county’s colours, Downey claimed an All-Ireland JFC honour alongside her sister in 2000 and spent more than a decade in the red and black, captaining Down to the Division Two title and promotion to the National League’s top-flight in 2008.

“We all won pretty convincingly which was probably surprising in a way,” added McGreevy of the sweep. “We would have been expecting tough contests across the board but to be honest it’s a real credit to the Irish lads and the girls.

“Although we knew the Aussies were working hard on their fitness and getting used to the round ball and things like that, there’s no doubt the teams that we were involved in were working really hard as well.

“Even standing in goals and looking out the field, you see the hits they’re taking, and you see the fitness levels and the fact that they’ve worked so hard over the last couple of months to get in great shape for it.

“It’s all taken very seriously. We were maybe spooked a bit by some of the videos going round of the Aussies in training camps and there’s maybe a bit of fear there among some of the Irish players of being hit hard in a game we’re not used to.

“There’s no doubt about it, the lads have definitely done their homework and ate, slept and drank these occasions so it’s all good at the minute but it’s only half time.”

McGuckin added: “We all won very well but I’d say it was a learning curve for the Australians too and they’ll come into this hoping to raise their game and to get more scores on the board.

“In our game, it was fairly competitive and tight with the difference being that we were fit to get the ball over the bar and into the net, but they certainly had a lot of the ball.”

While dealing with the round ball and rattling the net took time for the Aussies to master, the Australian Rules tackle is something the Ireland lads are perhaps still struggling to get to grips with.

“There was plenty of hard hitting, I got a lovely elbow to the mouth in the first quarter going for a breaking ball and there was no free or nothing, that’s just the way it’s played, and they know how to work it a wee bit different,” laughed McGuckin.

SHARPSHOOTER…Michaela Downey was the Player of the Match for the Ireland ladies team

“With us, we’re always going for the ball, but they know how to get in there and move the ball on before getting caught. I learned the hard way and hopefully this weekend will be a bit different now that I’ve got a wee bit of experience.”

Being a goalkeeper meant that McGreevy was’t out in the thick of it, but he could still see the intensity of the tackle how much work it takes to get right.

“I think the first training session that we got stuck into practising the tackle, in Gaelic football you’re used to taking a hit, but this is a totally different thing, and you could see that coming through in training.

“I was actually picking Niall Morgan’s brains from a goalkeeper’s point of view on it and his advice was to get it and get rid of it quickly, which is the tactic that suits us better.

“You don’t want to give them that chance because that is their natural game, to take you out. It was hard to get used to in the first couple of sessions but once we got our heads around it then we were fine.

“I actually think that our ability to tackle the Aussies was every bit as good if not better than theirs and we did put in some brilliant tackles which sort of surprised me because there’s a preconception that our guys were going to get taken down every time.

“But what really worked for us was our fast movement and our ability to think quick and move the ball before they really got the chance to hit us. At times they struggled to keep up with how quick we were moving the ball.

“Their game is very much to try and get the ball in for a mark, they weren’t really working on goals much. That was a big plus for us and we really used that to our advantage, and it was a big area of our game where we could show their weaknesses and our strengths.”

The second tests will all be held in Denn this Saturday.

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