Thursday 19 October 2017

Azzurri's day as makeshift Ireland broken and battered

When Ireland manager Mick Kearney used the Charlie Haughey acronym GUBU – grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented – last week to describe the relationship between Ireland and injury he didn't realise that there was another twist in the tale. How bizarre is it to be reduced to switching a flanker to the wing after 36 minutes because three players were already carted off? And is it fair to describe as grotesque a situation where Ireland could have three yellow cards in the one afternoon?

Ireland 15

When Ireland manager Mick Kearney used the Charlie Haughey acronym GUBU – grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre, unprecedented – last week to describe the relationship between Ireland and injury he didn't realise that there was another twist in the tale. How bizarre is it to be reduced to switching a flanker to the wing after 36 minutes because three players were already carted off? And is it fair to describe as grotesque a situation where Ireland could have three yellow cards in the one afternoon?

And despite all that, the away team should have won. This was a magnificent day for Italy, their first win over Ireland since Bologna in 1997, and their target of two wins in this Six Nations reached successfully.

Neatly bookended, this campaign for Jacques Brunel, with wins over France and now Ireland, after 64 minutes you could see it all going south for them despite the horrendous circumstances in which their opponents found themselves.

The green shirts were piling phase upon phase, with Ian Madigan looking dangerous every time he touched the ball, and they had worked themselves into a great position at the Italy posts when referee Wayne Barnes gave them a penalty. They didn't want three points – they needed seven.

And with that you felt Italy would have collapsed, for it would have seen Ireland resurrect themselves from a 16-6 deficit early in the second half to take the lead again.

It was a great passage of rugby, and Paddy Jackson's strike – his third on the trot after David Venditti's try on 49 minutes – left just a point between them, but Italy were getting their captain back from the bin and while they had suffered in Sergio Parisse's absence, it hadn't been fatal.

That was the game there and then. Roared on by a vocal crowd of 74,000 – an estimated 12-15,000 were travelling fans – they realised they had survived the crisis. And they grew from there.

Ireland meantime began to lose the plot, and added two yellow cards to the opener which had seen Brian O'Driscoll binned on the intervention of touch judge Romain Poite for stamping on Simone Favaro.

It could easily have been red, and it's unclear what criteria are used to distinguish between the two for the law book doesn't allow for interpretation.

The other two players binned were Donnacha Ryan for a late tackle on Edoardo Gori, and Conor Murray for slapping the ball away with Italy on the charge. Ryan was actually replaced by the diminutive Paul Marshall, an apposite move in the circumstances, as Ireland finished with 14 men.

The injuries started in a hectic spell in the second quarter and when it was over Keith Earls had a suspected dislocated shoulder, replacement Luke Fitzgerald had twisted his knee, and for the second time in a week Luke Marshall had his bell rung. You couldn't make it up.

That resulted in Peter O'Mahony shifting to the wing with Iain Henderson, who did well, coming into the back row. It might have been better to make a straight swap with Sean Cronin for Fitzgerald, but either way Ireland would have been in trouble.

It's worth noting that Ireland were playing poorly before the Twilight Zone music started up. They were given a great start with a run of decisions that allowed Jackson – who kicked five out of six – to get the ball rolling.

By 21 minutes, however, Luciano Orquera had the home team 6-3 ahead, and a thumping effort from distance by Gonzalo Garcia put Italy into a 9-3 lead going to half time.

Jackson pulled three back with the last kick of the half, and how Ireland needed to get off and reorganise. Brunel meantime was en route to the changing room to plead with his players to calm down a bit when they got to the Ireland '22'. They put down any amount of ball as they got within striking distance of the sticks.

Their best stuff was coming from man of the match Alessandro Zanni and hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, and of course Andrea Lo Cicero playing his last game.

The home team made the breakthrough they needed when after a raft of phases in the Ireland '22', Venditti was credited with a touchdown in close which was referred to the TMO. Orquera's conversion put them 16-6 ahead but then Parisse let the side down badly by foot tripping Madigan.

That started a sweet run of strikes from Jackson, leading his team to within a point of Italy. The crowd were desperate for someone to settle the side and when he came back Parisse did just that with some huge carries.

They started breathing a bit easier on 69 minutes when Orquera tacked on another three after Ryan was binned, and then the insurance points came with the last kick of the game.

We wondered at the start, when the crowd belted out Inno Di Mameli with terrific verve, if this would be their day. Indeed it was. What we never figured was that Ireland would be reduced to chewing gum and string in the process of trying to keep it all together.

Irish Independent

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