Saturday 25 March 2017

Kidney relieved to have outhalf with a gift for dragging games from fire

Peter Bills

Many have died a nasty death in Rome down the years. But it's probably fair to say Irish coach Declan Kidney suffered half a dozen deaths before escaping from the Roman cauldron, right at the end of a grim day for Irish rugby.

Only Ronan O'Gara's late drop goal dragged Ireland home from Rome with little more than two minutes to spare.

The right man for the job? You bet, thought coach Declan Kidney. "It was a good team drop goal," he said. "Everybody played their part, everybody knew what they were doing. He (Ronan) has done it before and this is where you need the experience on the pitch. We are blessed to have two outhalves with such ability."

But captain Brian O'Driscoll hardly beat about the bush on a wider issue. Weren't Ireland dead lucky to escape with the win? "It was very, very close today and we were fortunate, to a degree, to come out of it. Of course, when you're down with four minutes left, you think there's a chance you might lose the game," O'Driscoll said.

"But we felt we were creating a huge number of opportunities. But we lacked the clinical edge to finish them off, and that was the frustrating thing. We created a lot of opportunities but by bad passing and bad handling, we let Italy off the hook.

"The fact was, we should not have been in that situation with four minutes to go. We had a lot more scoring chances than them but there were unforced errors throughout.

"It is definitely a game we will have to have a good hard look at but if it's down to individual responsibility, in a sense that is the easy thing. It might not be a thing of beauty (watching the video) next week but you have to look after the ball much better than we did."

At least Kidney was able to report no further injury problems among Ireland's already decimated squad. Jamie Heaslip "wasn't looking too bad" yesterday, Kidney said. But the likes of Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble won't be anywhere near making the French match this weekend.

"We were far from the perfect article in the first 60 minutes," said the Irish head coach. "We have work to do, because we must be a lot more clinical. But as for the last five minutes . . . as a coach, you can't coach that. You are lucky if you have two flyhalves (Jonathan Sexton and O'Gara) of their ability in a situation like that.

"Several units of the side had not played together before today and they will get stronger with a match under their belt."

Kidney refused to condemn French referee Romain Poite for his 73rd-minute decision to send Denis Leamy to the sin bin for handling in a ruck. "The referee had given a warning before half-time to say hands away," he added. "Then he deemed we had been the ones hanging onto it. It was about 31 minutes between that warning and the yellow card. So there you go."

Had Kidney been surprised by the Italian challenge? "No. We had been saying all week they would be difficult. They were as good as I knew they would be. We knew they would go for the full 80 minutes this time.

"We have had matches before where Ireland were winners by 20 points but this time Italy were very strong right to the end. But our defence was very good, especially in keeping them well away from our line for their last-minute drop-goal attempt."

Italian coach Nick Mallett bemoaned his team's naivety and precision at vital moments during the game. "This team still has to learn how to control the ball in attack. We had a chance after Luke McLean's try after 75 minutes but you can't miss a kick off, which we then did," Mallett said.

"I am very proud of this team; they showed great spirit. But we missed the ball at that restart and gave the ball straight back to Ireland. Even when they got the drop goal, we got the ball back but then allowed them to recover it.

"You cannot do that at this level. These are small areas of experience which we need to learn. But we can benefit from this game. It would have been fantastic to win but we can definitely learn from the way we lost.

"Ireland's experience, in the shape of players like Ronan O'Gara, was vital at the end of the day. My players were fantastic in defence and attack but we made errors at crucial moments which gave them opportunities to press us on attack. Three errors we made led to Brian O'Driscoll's try and two penalties. We must learn from those mistakes."

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