Saturday 27 May 2017

Italian starter whets the appetite

Kidney's troops go through the motions to leave plenty in reserve for mouthwatering France clash

Brian O'Driscoll is upended by Italy's Gonzalo Garcia, who was subsequently sin-binned. BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll is upended by Italy's Gonzalo Garcia, who was subsequently sin-binned. BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE

hugh farrelly

AND so to Paris. If this was the hors d'oeuvre before next weekend's entree in the Stade de France, it was an appetiser which was enough to whet the appetite without quite hitting the spot.

However, Saturday's workmanlike victory over a clearly outclassed Italian outfit left Ireland coach Declan Kidney with more positives than negatives; not least the fact he can now bring his Grand Slam champions to a venue where they have not won for 10 years without being overburdened by expectation.

For this was not a performance to set the pulses racing and there was a definite impression that Ireland, particularly in their back-line play, have plenty in reserve.

Such is the psychological significance of victory in Paris, as Kidney's squad progresses towards the World Cup, that it is safe to expect the Full Monty next Saturday with moves the French will not have seen before and were never going to get an option to study against Italy.

Such is the paucity of Italian attacking ambition that Ireland never had to search for their extra gears. Italy coach Nick Mallet admitted as much afterwards when he said that the second-half scoreline of 6-3 to Ireland was eminently pleasing on the basis of their pre-match intention to prevent a hammering from markedly superior opponents.

This damage-limitation exercise was based around committed defence and dogged scrapping at the breakdown. When they had the ball, Italy's lack of ambition was embarrassing.

Time and again, they worked possession to pods of runners standing close to the ruck -- even when inside their own half -- a policy which achieved nothing more than running down the clock. Craig Gower at out-half had nothing to work with outside him, kicked poorly and did not present any meaningful threat with ball in hand.

Their try came directly from Irish hesitancy and, while they deserve credit for sustained second-half cussedness, overall Mallett's Six Nations mixture looks destined to be stirred by yet another wooden spoon.

But enough about Italy. What specifically did we learn about Ireland's 2010 recipe after the feast of success they gorged upon in 2009?

Well, they served up extremely satisfying set-pieces. The Irish scrummage came through superbly with Cian Healy, Jerry Flannery and John Hayes a match for everything the Italians -- who humbled the All Blacks scrum last November -- could throw at them with plenty of support from behind.

Furthermore, to see Flannery produce such an accomplished display, and have Rory Best run on to replace him and put in a decent shift also, was testament to the recovery programmes in place for Ireland's professional elite, given the injury problems that threatened to scupper both their seasons.

The lineout work was even more impressive. One marginally crooked call was the only blemish on Ireland's throw while the home forwards turned over Italian ball on seven occasions through Paul O'Connell, Leo Cullen, Kevin McLaughlin and Jamie Heaslip.

Cullen had a superb all-round afternoon while his Leinster colleague McLaughlin did not look overawed on his debut and showed up well on the charge and in defence.

In terms of Paris, the ideal scenario would be to have Stephen Ferris back at his bullish best for that bruising encounter but, in the likelihood of the Ulsterman's absence, McLaughlin and Sean O'Brien are useful options to have in reserve.

As is Donnacha Ryan, who did well on his introduction for O'Connell; similarly Paddy Wallace for Ronan O'Gara, who looked as though he had never been away from the international arena, directing operations with calm authority while effortlessly slotting over 16 points via four penalties and two conversions.

Tomas O'Leary went well inside him, reacting sharply for his first international try after 35 minutes, as physical as ever with his scrum-half decision-making generally on the money. In midfield, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll looked sharp, embarrassingly superior to their opposites with plenty more to show next weekend.

Andrew Trimble looked lively on the left before being forced off with a slight hamstring strain and set up the first try for Jamie Heaslip after a sublime cut-out pass by O'Gara sent the Ulster winger flying deep into Italy territory after 14 minutes.

Tommy Bowe had a quiet game on the right-hand touchline and, again, we can expect to see the Monaghan man more centrally involved through the middle when he faces France. It leaves full-back Rob Kearney as the only Irish player with cause to be disappointed by this outing.

His kicks, normally such a strong point of his game, seemed to arrow directly into Italian hands and he was culpable for Italy's try just before half-time (not helped by Trimble allowing the ball to bounce) when his kick was blocked down by Kaine Robertson, who followed up gleefully for the simple touchdown.

Such are the exalted standards the Louthman has set for himself that there is always going to be an over-reaction when he falls short of those levels but Kearney is a class act, and he is entitled to a blip, with the resolve and ability to respond positively. Bottom line, Ireland do not want to go to Paris without Kearney watching house at the back.

Robertson's try left it 23-8 at half-time but Italy's second-half intransigence prevented Ireland from really pulling clear and further scoring was limited to penalties from O'Gara and Wallace while Mirco Bergasmasco added to Gower's first-half penalty with a well-struck effort five minutes after the resumption.

There was no sense of self-congratulation in the Ireland camp after this, rather a quiet satisfaction at the performance of the set-piece and an acknowledgement that there is a need for improvement going into a seminal weekend. An element of rustiness was inevitable as players became accustomed to their national coaches and each other once again following two months with their clubs.

Injuries will play a big part in the build-up to next weekend, but Kidney's squad-development objective is bubbling along nicely and this victory sets his side up nicely for the big one.

The starter may have left something of a salty aftertaste but Ireland have their feet under the table, knife and fork at the ready, with a healthy appetite for the mouthwatering main course in France. Bon appetit.

IRELAND -- R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (Capt), G D'Arcy, A Trimble (K Earls, 55); R O'Gara (P Wallace, 65), T O'Leary (E Reddan, 73); C Healy, J Flannery (R Best, 55), J Hayes (T Court, 72); L Cullen, P O'Connell (D Ryan, 60); K McLaughlin, D Wallace (S O'Brien, 72), J Heaslip.

ITALY -- L McLean; K Robertson (A Masi, 58), G Canale, G Garcia, Mirco Bergamasco; C Gower (R Bocchino, 65-73), T Tebaldi (S Picone, 65); S Perugini (Castrogiovanni, 72), L Ghiraldini (Capt, F Ongaro 72),M Castrogiovanni (M Aguero, 55); C del Fava (M Bortolami, 49), Q Geldenhuys; J Sole, Mauro Bergamasco, A Zanni.

REF -- R Poite (France).

Irish Independent

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