Kidney not fooled by 'getting away with it'
Ireland underwhelm but victory all that matters in long term
In many respects, Ireland's opening performance of the 2011 Six Nations was ... well ... muck.
However, before there is any wild descent into doom-mongering and calls for wholesale change, it should be noted that is also a win that could stand to this Irish squad, possibly even one we may look back on in eight months' time as a turning point.
The key is that they won -- defeat would have been disastrous in terms of morale and progression to the World Cup. The clock is ticking, just eight games and seven months until Ireland begin their New Zealand 2011 campaign and it really is time to kick on.
There have been mitigating circumstances, such as injuries, rule changes and southern hemisphere opposition but, the truth is, we have not had an Ireland performance to truly enthuse over since the 27-12 win over Wales on March 13 last year.
That is why victory was so essential on Saturday and, once again, Irish rugby owes a debt of gratitude to Ronan O'Gara. Down to 14 men following the sin-binning of Denis Leamy, Ireland were a point behind their hosts and staring a first Six Nations defeat to Italy square in the face.
The Stadio Flaminio was rocking, Italy coach Nick Mallett and his assistant Alessandro Troncon looked like they would have to book a hotel room if they got any more excited, but O'Gara, on the pitch for Jonathan Sexton not long before Italy forged ahead through Luke McLean's try, was not about to miss this opportunity to make his point.
From the kick-off to the decisive drop goal a couple of minutes after, the 104-cap veteran was in masterful control and, if Ireland had replicated the clinical urgency and focus they showed in that end-game cameo for the previous 77 minutes, they would have won this pulling up.
They kept that focus when Italy attempted to respond with the last kick of the game, a drop-goal effort from replacement Luciano Orquera and relieved Ireland coach Declan Kidney paid tribute to his men afterwards.
"There are things you can't coach, you either have it or you don't -- and we have it," said Kidney.
"That was a time we could have just panicked, but, both in attack and defence, we didn't.
"The kick-off went right, the scrum went right -- we had a seven-man scrum, hung on to the ball -- put ourselves right for the drop goal and dropped the goal.
"When they kicked off we managed to keep our defensive line and then, when they eventually encroached to what, about 25 out? That meant the drop goal had to come from 35 out and then you force it (the drop goal) a little bit and it falls short -- it's margins."
However, Kidney acknowledged that his side had fallen well below par with their error count, which contributed to 16 turnovers -- unsustainable against the top teams and very nearly calamitous against a fired up and physical Italian effort.
"We didn't excel at anything really," admitted the coach. "I'm not going to try and bask in the elation of having gotten away with it. Knowing the players, I know how hard they try. We had a few wild passes and then once we did that, we just tried harder and harder again and that's a frustration, but it's a positive frustration (trying hard), we just have to calm down and hang on to the ball and not force things as much."
Two of Ireland's most skilful operators -- centres Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy -- were particularly profligate with possession. O'Driscoll scored the crucial try after half-time when he squirmed around the flailing, mismatched challenge of Martin Castrogiovanni, but he also flung two wild passes over the head of right wing Fergus McFadden, the second costing Ireland a try which could have seen them push ahead towards the expected 15-20 point winning margin.
D'Arcy had more spills than a waiter with the DTs, one when he had brought his team to within a metre of the Italian line.
It wasn't just those two. Other quality, experienced Irish players had bad moments on the ball and the cumulative effect cost Ireland points and momentum, while providing the home side with regular fillips. They were undeniably helped in this regard by another woeful performance from referee Romain Poite, particularly in the scrum, where the Frenchman seemed completely at sea and allowed Salvatore Perugini to scrummage illegally all day.
That said, Italy also deserve credit for their resolve. They are still a limited attacking side, but have a pack that can mix it with anyone in world rugby and now, helped by their Magners League involvement, appear to be an 80-minute team.
Such was Italy's belief in their forward supremacy that they spurned several kickable penalties in favour of scrums and line-outs. Sergio Parisse was inspirational, despite playing with a badly damaged finger, while Alessandro Zanni was athletic and aggressive next to him, providing Italy with a go-to option in a line-out packed full of them.
As O'Driscoll noted afterwards, there was a good shape to Ireland's backline play, with the back three showing well, but the errors killed them.
However, defence coach Les Kiss can reflect on a decent day's work, even though Italy's attacks lacked subtlety.
For McLean's try, there was the question of staying out on your man, but Ireland were down to 14, so it was no huge surprise that pressure and numbers eventually told once Italy held their passes.
"We defended strongly when we did turn the ball over," said Kidney when asked for positives. "I thought the back three brought the ball back to them, the back-row defended strongly and the front-row, it was a new combination. But I'm not going to blow smoke up anybody, all parts of our game need to improve. If we turn over the ball as often as here, France will be delighted."
Indeed. It is a truly sobering thought. If Ireland make the same amount of errors next week and France are in the mood, Kidney's men could be opened up and then it will be seven games to go and more World Cup worry.
However, Ireland have the chance now to use this close shave as a positive springboard for next week. Individual errors can be eliminated and Kidney's men showed in the last five minutes how effective they can be when they zone in.
Furthermore, this experience will bring on Six Nations rookies like Sean O'Brien, Mike Ross and Fergus McFadden in a game where Ireland will be written off going in -- just how Kidney likes it.
A couple of changes, a kick up the ass and he can get this bandwagon rolling again. Another dodgy performance and the road to and through New Zealand 2011 will start to look very rocky indeed.
ITALY -- L McLean; A Masi, G Conale, A Sgarbi (G Garcia 70), M Bergamasco; K Burton (L Orquera 72), E Gori (P Canavosio 10); S Perugini (A Lo Cicero 35-40, 63), L Ghiraldini (F Ongaro 63), M Castrogiovanni; S Dellape (C Del Fava 54), Q Geldenhuys; J Sole (V Bernabo 50), A Zanni, S Parisse (capt).
IRELAND -- L Fitzgerald; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy (P Wallace 75); K Earls; J Sexton (R O'Gara 66), T O'Leary (E Reddan 63); C Healy, R Best (S Cronin 75), M Ross (T Court 75); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (L Cullen 73); D Leamy, D Wallace, S O'Brien. Yellow card: Leamy 73.
REF -- R Poite (France).