Sunday 24 September 2017

Roman ruins - Remembering the fall of Kidney's empire

Irish rugby still wincing at the painful memory of only 21st century defeat to Italy

Rob Kearney, supported by Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Devin Toner attempts to break through the Italian defence in 2013
Rob Kearney, supported by Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Devin Toner attempts to break through the Italian defence in 2013
David Kelly

David Kelly

All empires must, eventually, fall. And history apprises us that when they tumble in Rome, they are wont to do so in spectacular fashion.

March 16, 2013, was the day when Declan Kidney's kingdom came crashing down around his ears.

The only consolation, apart from those witnesses who could drown their sorrows in Peroni or Nastro Azzurro - and lucky folk like this writer who detoured to see the women complete the Grand Slam a day later - was that Ireland at least didn't finish bottom of the Six Nations table.

It was a defining, fin de siecle moment in the history of the Irish international team.

"Yeah, in a lot of different ways," Peter O'Mahony painfully recalls, his eyes squinting narrowly.

"But it was probably just personal dejection and disappointment really. There's no-one harder on ourselves when we lose than us personally so that was probably that was the front and foremost feeling. Emotion."

Four years earlier, Ireland had created another piece of history by claiming a first Grand Slam since 1948; this, their first setback in 17 Tests against the perennial whipping boys of the northern hemisphere, was history of a harsher hue.

Declan Kidney's Ireland coaching career was effectively bookended by that wonderful zenith and this cascading nadir.

This was Ireland's first ever visit to the Stadio Olimpico; the horrors may only finally be erased once they - presumably under Joe Schmidt's resurgent side - complete a winning return this weekend.

A generation earlier, Ireland had routinely lost to Italy in the dark, fledgling days of professionalism; a hat-trick of defeats to the Azzurri confirming impressions that the Italians were more professional than the Irish.

The Six Nations had altered this troublesome trend. Although Ronan O'Gara was required to slot a late drop-goal two years before, victories against Italy had proved routine, if occasionally troublesome, in every championship game since Five Nations became Six in 2000.

This day would be different. It starts with 'Ireland's Call', a dirge at the best of times, now reduced to a funereal requiem foretelling the downfall to come.

On RTE, Donal Lenihan remarks that it was akin to a "death march"; in a steaming, gladiatorial cauldron, the Irish team would mirror the bum notes of the song thereafter.

By the third quarter, Italy are leading 6-3; Rory Best has misfired with three darts and Ireland's penalty rate has accelerated sufficiently for referee Wayne Barnes to issue captain Jamie Heaslip a team warning.

Then, Keith Earls, maintaining a theme of debilitating injury, limps from the fray while a concussed Luke Marshall follows.

"We've never lost to injury but the gods are sending us messages early in the game," recalls Brian O'Driscoll. The deities would soon direct their arrow towards their rugby representative on earth.

"Just after that, their openside flanker, Simone Favaro, makes a tackle on Ian Madigan," is how O'Driscoll viewed his impending sin-binning. "He rolls over on our side of the ruck and just lies there.

"I get in there and give him some shoe, right in the chest. I'm thinking, Get the fuck out of our ruck! My foot is in the vicinity of the ball but not close enough.

"I look to see if anyone's spotted it. If they have, I know I'm in trouble."

Touch judge Romain Poite can often see what few other human eyes cannot so he doesn't miss this; he tells Barnes. Yellow card.

Catastrophe

Luke Fitzgerald, who had come on for Earls, then goes off himself after twisting his leg in the turf; Paul Marshall is the only remaining back so Iain Henderson comes on to the flank.

That means O'Mahony, a part-time winger with Cork Con back in the day, moves to the wing. We wait with bated breath for the next catastrophe.

"I don't know if it was a dream or nightmare," he recalls. "I certainly wasn't dreaming about playing on the wing as a kid but sometimes these things happen and you have to adapt and get on with it.

"I certainly wasn't learning the position from winger. I said we'd get through it but we didn't.

"It's a physical game, especially against the Italians. They're honed, a hugely physical bunch and there can be casualties now and then."

Ireland did get to half-time without ceding more to the Italians' bruising physical superiority; Jackson, having prevented a certain try with a smashing tackle with Italy spurning a four-man overlap, nailing his third penalty for only a 9-6 deficit.

The Ulster man, thanks to Jonny Sexton's injury, had been a controversial pick and his jettisoned rival was squirming uncomfortably in his armchair in Ireland.

"I have my nice little chair," according to O'Gara, whose career had unwittingly ended the previous day in defeat to Scotland. "And I was angry. I was angry, yeah. I was freaking. I was thinking 'this is bullshit'.

"Against Scotland, Paddy's general game had been good and he was playing nice and flat. But by the Italy game he was playing deeper and deeper.

"I was watching a different game I didn't really understand what the thinking was."

When Giovanbattista Venditti burrowed over for a 48th-minute try and a 16-6 lead, the growing disbelief and the suspicion that the whole country was watching a different game had been magnified.

Ireland's crisis had amplified, too. Still, as we enter the third quarter, Jackson fearlessly kicks Ireland back to within a point at 16-15.

Then Donnacha Ryan becomes the second of three players to be binned but Sergio Parisse sees yellow too; nerves are fraying and the retiring centurion, Andrea Lo Cicero's, emotional departure ramps up the sense of operatic theatre.

O'Mahony could do little to bail water from the listing ship.

"You certainly do question yourself when you're defending a five-metre scrum and you're defending 60 yards of space instead of about five. But to be fair I had Drico outside me and he was calling their plays and smashing their players at the back."

The fat lady was, though, gargling to oil her vocal chords as 72,000 Italians awaited acclamation of history.

Not since a then unseemly hat-trick of defeats in Bologna 16 years earlier during the ill-fated reign of Brian Ashton - Conor O'Shea recalls being called up and Ashton asked "what are you doing?" - had Ireland succumbed to Italy.

"Ah Bologna," recalls Malcolm O'Kelly. "I do remember that. We lost. I roomed with Dylan O'Grady, his one and only cap. Lovely town. Very historic. Do I remember much about the game? Not really. It was like many of the games we played then. We were pretty solid up front but surprised at what they had out wide. It was a typical Ireland performance at the time. We underestimated them, we were expected to win.

"It was a pretty low time, there was a lot of change. A torrid time. They were trying lots of different guys, very unbalanced. There wasn't a whole lot of communication from the top down.

"There was the Pat Whelan/Brian Ashton thing, one guy telling the team one thing, the other guy another. A low, losing that match."

2013 revisits this stunning nadir.

"That was a dark old spot, that day," says O'Mahony now. "We had a great group but we just weren't showing up for each other. Disappointing times all right. You ask anyone. You hate losing a lot more than you like winning. It lasts for a lot longer."

He now returns to the scene of the crime with the Irish team rebuilt. There will be no sightseeing.

"We're over there for business." When the Irish empire strikes back.

Irish Independent

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