We avoided the banana skin - let's move on
Published 07/02/2011 | 05:00
We won a game we could have lost. We played badly. Not a single Irish player is exempt from criticism after an error-riddled display.
Well maybe one -- Ronan O'Gara. It was his nerves of steel and ability to hit overdrive instantly off the bench that pulled this one out of the fire. His sweetly struck drop goal won the match, but every bit as significant was the quality of his restart following Luke McLean's try, which could well have won it for the Italians.
Jonathan Sexton will start again against the French but he will need to be at his very best as his Munster rival continues to ask questions whenever he is given a chance. O'Gara is now to Declan Kidney what David Humphreys was to Eddie O'Sullivan for so long -- a player he can trust to come on mid-match and do what needs to be done.
Call it a wise head on ageing shoulders, but Saturday re-emphasised the continuing importance of the brilliant Munster playmaker. Sexton is still the main man but O'Gara is really keeping him on his toes.
Beyond that, there were few crumbs of comfort for Kidney in a muted, at times ragged, performance. The scrum was reasonable but with enough creaking to suggest serious ground for worry in six days' time. The Italian front-row is mean but the French are on a different scale entirely.
The line-out was efficient -- no more than that -- while around the field, aside from the industrious Donncha O'Callaghan, there was little of forward substance.
The back-row was average, but whether that was a result of a less than stable platform or a less than perfect balance, the jury remains out. If Jamie Heaslip is fit for Sunday, then it should be Sean O'Brien wearing No 7 with David Wallace at No 6 and Denis Leamy in reserve.
Another alternative would be to go with the in-form Leinster unit of O'Brien, Shane Jennings and Heaslip en bloc.
Beyond that, if Tommy Bowe is available then he will return, leaving it a straight call between Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden (who did as much as could be expected on limited opportunity and poor service).
Questions will be asked at scrum-half, inside-centre and left wing. In the centre, too, Gordon D'Arcy's handling and Brian O'Driscoll's passing were unrecognisably out of sorts.
On the plus side, Luke Fitzgerald was comfortable at full-back, if drawn a little too easily out of the touchline drift for McLean's late try. Sexton, too, had an accomplished opening hour.
In general terms, we shouldn't glibly just say that a win is a win, but, equally, we must be careful not to over-react.
It was a poor performance, and the fact it was the opening game is no excuse -- the English, French and Scots didn't have too much trouble hitting the ground running.
However, France in Dublin will surely elicit a different Irish performance entirely. It would need to.
The Italians are at their most dangerous in the opening two games, particularly in Rome. Win well and you get scant praise; win ugly and you get slaughtered. The trick is in keeping perspective.
We got out of jail after a poor performance. But if we beat the French in similar circumstances next Sunday, the talk will be of reaching the World Cup final.
The French were brilliant in beating the spirited Scots. After our struggle in Italy, people will be thinking it will be a cakewalk for Les Bleus in Dublin. And that's exactly how Kidney would want it.
The French clash was always set to be Championship-defining game, as it was in 2009.
Momentum was never going to be achieved in Rome. Nothing has changed. It's time for solid thinking and sensible comment.
The Rome mission has been accomplished, the banana skin avoided. Let's move on.