George Hook: Road to the World Cup will be a bumpy journey for next coach
In a match that at times bordered on the farcical in Rome, Ireland were beaten by Italy and only the ineptitude of France in Paris saved them from the wooden spoon.
It is impossible to analyse with any real intent the performance when at times players in green shirts were going down like ninepins and the backline finished with a forward on the wing. However, the performance of Declan Kidney's team still begged some very serious questions. Even when at full strength, Ireland were still playing second fiddle to the home team.
The Irish line-out malfunctioned and Italy continued as they began this championship – with the high-speed offloading game. Also contrary to pre-match predictions, it was the Italian maul that was more potent – referee Wayne Barnes, who had a poor match, allowed Ireland to pull down a maul when a score seemed certain.
The offence merited a yellow card but surprisingly, given what happened later in the game, Barnes did not reach into his pocket.
Astonishingly despite the injuries, Ireland had an outside chance of winning. However, crass indiscipline which resulted in three yellow cards compounded the damage caused by the physical injuries.
Brian O'Driscoll was lucky to escape a red card for a stamping offence. There is no doubt that his reputation and the suggestion that this might be his last game could have influenced the referee's decision.
Donnacha Ryan and Conor Murray received similar sanctions for not very clever offences. Ireland were in with a chance despite making just one line-break, losing five line-outs and kicking the ball away interminably because Italy seemed afraid to win.
When Ireland were reduced to playing Peter O'Mahony on the wing, Italy never went wide to attack that area and continued to drive close to the breakdown, therefore making life easier for a makeshift Ireland defence.
Eventually the Italians drove over from close range to put the game beyond Ireland's reach, but they made extremely hard work of getting their second victory in this championship.
The Irish backline has not functioned as a potent unit since half-time in Cardiff all those weeks ago. It has scored just one try (Craig Gilroy) in four matches, and sadly the experiment of playing Paddy Jackson at out-half has failed.
It is impossible for a backline to function if the out-half stands more than 10 yards behind the scrum-half. It allows for just one option, the kick.
And kicking we saw in abundance from the No 10 and Murray. Jackson has never been a tactical kicker and put no pressure on his opponents.
However, Murray never demonstrated the control that he exerted in the and seemed to lack confidence in his partner. In one passage of play, the ball was recycled four times and on each occasion the scrum-half passed to a player other than his out-half. There was an excuse for Murray, as Jackson never put himself in the frame for a pass.
The arrival of Ian Madigan demonstrated what might have happened this season had the coach picked a player of considerable promise rather than the safer option. Madigan consistently ran at pace and chose good angles.
Many years ago, at the height of the Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward controversy, the senior players on the Australian tour persuaded the coach to go for Campbell rather than Ward, who was the man in possession.
We can only assume that O'Driscoll, shorn of the captaincy, did not make his feelings known to the coach. Given a choice, the legendary Leinster centre would surely have gone for an out-half with whom he has a relationship and whose qualities he knows.
The Irish bench, particularly in relation to the forwards, paled into insignificance to that available to the Italian coach. One feared for the young prop forward replacements, but in fact they functioned remarkably well under pressure, and Stephen Archer can feel content with his Test debut.
The logic of bringing on the 6' 10" Devin Toner and then using him as a lifter escaped me when Ireland had a problem winning their own line-out ball.
The unseemly haste in getting players with head injuries back into the fray was demonstrated when Luke Marshall took a knock and was immediately substituted as a precaution. There was no question of putting the young Ulster centre into the concussion bin as the medical team instantly knew the dangers of a concussion in successive weeks.
Happily O'Driscoll came through the game unscathed, but the whole issue of head injuries is something that is going to come under the microscope more and more, especially knowing the legal cases that are now being brought across the Atlantic by ex-American footballers.
This week O'Driscoll talked about passing a cognitive test. There is simply no research available on rugby players who have suffered head injuries.
This season may also have other casualties. Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best have now slipped down the Lions pecking order to a point where they may be lucky to get on the plane. The saddest part of the last eight weeks is that this need not have happened. Three wins out of four after Cardiff were within the compass of even this depleted Irish squad had sensible selection policies been followed.
The road to the next World Cup will be difficult for the next coach. He will be without the best player of the professional era, the scrum will constantly teeter on the edge of catastrophe and the line-out dependent on hookers without the skill to throw accurately to a target.
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