O'Driscoll believes Irish team can grow stronger
A silk purse or a sow's ear? The jury was out on Ireland's stumbling performance at Croke Park yesterday, especially after a frustrating second half.
As things stand, a final verdict on this game isn't really possible until Ireland have played France in Paris on Saturday.
Irish coach Declan Kidney admitted it had been a "frustrating" last 40 minutes. But his captain was the personification of calm.
Brian O'Driscoll called it "a good work-out", adding: "It's not easy to just immediately click after being together for only a week or so. We haven't played together as a side since November and maybe that showed. In the autumn, when we beat South Africa, we had been together for four weeks and that makes a big difference.
"You can't just turn it on and off, you have to build all the things that are a part of your game. But it's fair to say, there is still plenty to improve on."
Even O'Driscoll looked frustrated at one point, slamming the ball into touch and making a hardly complimentary comment, probably because he felt full-back Rob Kearney could have passed earlier in the move and given him more space with the ball.
But O'Driscoll had got over that by the time he came in to the press conference. "There is no point getting frustrated overall," he said. "It was the first one, the job was done, you take the positives out of it and you move on."
Kidney conceded the Italians had mounted an impressively consistent defence. "It was a big pressure game and they did play tough. You can run yourself into walls. So we know there are an awful lot of things still to do. There was a small bit of rustiness out there but at the end, we are delighted with the win.
"Are we overly excited with our performance? No. But if you allow yourself to get frustrated every time, you will never be satisfied . . . with a performance. In the past we have scored more points against Italy but this year they played a more pressured game against us and those (attacking) opportunities didn't come our way."
One of the problems Ireland never confronted successfully was how to generate more speed in their game. Almost any ball released from the breakdown to either side was funereally slow. "We didn't manage to put any pace in our game, especially in the second half," admitted Kidney. "A bit of that was down to our rustiness. Guys were isolated on a couple of occasions, especially after one good line break, but that was turned over.
"The second half was frustrating really. But there was a lot of honesty, effort and endeavour."
Ireland finished with a dressing room full of bruises and light knocks, testimony to the physicality of the Italian challenge. But Kidney did not suggest there were major difficulties confronting him ahead of a week which will end at the Stade de France against the mighty French.
Ronan O'Gara limped off before the end after taking a bang on the knee. Paul O'Connell went early, too, but Kidney said "I wouldn't be overly concerned right now although a lot of things can happen in 24 hours."
But it sounded increasingly unlikely that Ulster and Lions flanker Stephen Ferris will make the trip to Paris. Kidney said much depended on how Ferris reacts when his injured knee starts to take weights this week. If Ferris makes it, it will be some recovery.
O'Driscoll played down suggestions that he could again have been seriously injured in a near spear tackle from Italian centre Gonzalo Garcia who was yellow carded for the first half incident. Italian coach Nick Mallett claimed Garcia saw the ball, had gone in the tackle and was anxious to extricate himself from the position to cover the vacant channel. O'Driscoll certainly wasn't pouring oil on troubled waters.
"I wouldn't have thought there was anything in it," said the Irish captain. "It probably looked an awful lot more than it was. I certainly didn't feel I was in any danger in any shape or form."
And overall, O'Driscoll opted for the positives from the game as a whole over the negatives, even though Ireland managed no more than a paltry six points from two penalty goals in the entire second half.
"There were plenty of positives. The tempo we showed in the first half was good and our ability to turn defence into attack was good. There was a very good amount of line-out ball and we pinched some of theirs which was also useful.
"We made some good line breaks but just didn't finish them off. We didn't show a sufficiently clinical nature."
Mallett bemoaned a statistic which revealed Italy lost around 50 per cent of their own line-out ball. "We never managed to get sufficiently good first phase ball which meant we couldn't play on the front foot. The ball we did win was too slow and it gave us problems. It is very tough to be competitive if you lose 50 per cent of your line-outs.
"We haven't done that since I started as national coach so we are going to have to look very closely at that this week."
But Mallett was relieved Italy showed such defensive fortitude in the second half. "At 23-8 down at half-time, we were looking very much in danger. It's impossible to play any sort of pressure rugby if you don't win your first phase ball and I feared we might concede two or three more tries after half-time.
"Credit to our players who kept going and made sure that did not happen."