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Neil Francis: Irish far too slick for dirty Italians

"MARK how fleeting and paltry is the estate of man – yesterday an embryo, tomorrow a mummy or ashes. So for the hair’s breadth of time assigned to thee, live rationally and part with life cheerfully as drops the ripe olive, extolling the season that bore it and the tree that matured it."

So said Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. As Roman emperor his statement might not have borne any relevance to the Rugby World Cup, but after yesterday’s Italian performance it is quite apt.

The Italians were despatched with the sort of ease which gives rise to the notion that the words ‘Test match’ might not have any real meaning in terms of describing yesterday’s game.

Antonius' countrymen laid down a challenge which was dealt with |in the hair’s breadth of time. The first scrum gave me a sense of ease, the second absolute conviction that the match was over even though there were 70 minutes to go.

As the saying goes, ‘if you can't bite, don't bare your teeth’. Italy were toothless. Nick Mallet, whose term as coach ended cheerfully yesterday, is a clever man and he knew from weeks ago how desperately limited his team were in terms of having the skill and quality to trouble better sides and so he was forced to pin his colours to the mast of his scrum, which was unable to cause any form of discomfiture for Ireland.

Once again Greg Feek’s holistic approach to scrummaging paid dividends and the mere sight of Jamie Heaslip packing down and putting pressure on the row in front of him meant that the Irish scrum scrummed as eight and Heaslip was not a passenger cupping his hands on the ample buttocks of those in front of him.

It's a simple truism that if the back row scrummage, then the scrum is effective. Either way, Ireland would have won yesterday irrespective of whether their scrum was in trouble or not.

The missed bonus point against the United States elicited the sort of performance which ensured that Ireland would come to Dunedin with a ‘lose and we're out’ mentality and this brought a different dynamic to how they performed.

Every member of yesterday’s pack will tell you that, of all the Six Nations encounters, they always come off the pitch in the worst state after playing against this grizzled Italian pack.

But my God the Italians didn't even land a punch and were unable to drag this in to a fist fight –even though they did their very best to try and provoke Cian Healy to the point of witless retaliation.

Ireland didn't miss a tackle, won 100pc of their lineout ball and only lost one feed at scrum time. This suggests that they were not put under any kind of pressure.

If you want to quibble, they probably overdid playing the blind side and they did have 12 turnovers – most of them coming in the first half when they were just a little bit impatient.

In truth they should have won by over 50 points. When they were at their best in 2009 they managed to close 75pc of their clear-cut try-scoring chances; yesterday they had six clear-cut chances and only converted three of them. A 50pc rate will do against the Italians, but it won't be sufficient for the Welsh.

It must be said that referee Jonathan Kaplan had a very poor game and I would just wonder with a side as dirty as the Italians how Ireland lost the penalty count 14-13 – indeed it was incredible that not one Italian was shown a yellow card.

Kaplan refereed that controversial match in Cardiff in the Six Nations this year and awarded a try to Mike Phillips, who was the recipient of a quick lineout throw from a ball which was newly supplied by the ball boy. Under the rules that makes a quick throw illegal.

Kaplan, I would suspect, had a good idea that the ball which was kicked into the stand was not the same one which ended up behind the Irish try line.

He consulted with his assistant referee Peter Allen, who incorrectly advised him that he was sure it was the same ball. Kaplan looked at him stoically and then awarded the try.

With only a few minutes to go yesterday and admittedly the match well in the bag Tommy Bowe skilfully kicked the ball down the field in a breakaway foot rush. The Irish winger’s pace had him in front of the two Italian defenders.

As he was about to dive on the ball to score a try, Tommaso Benvenuti quite clearly tackled him without the Irish winger being any

where close to the ball. He impeded Bowe’s progress and ensured that he would not score what was in my mind a certain try. The early tackle was executed before the try line but Bowe was certain that justice would be done and a penalty try would be awarded.

Kaplan went to his TMO, a fellow South African Shaun Veldsman, for confirmation.

The questions asked were, did he ground the ball and was there foul play involved? The answer to the first question was obvious. Bowe was unable to touch the ball down as he was tackled before he got to it.

The answer to the second question was a disgraceful episode. Kaplan would not have asked the question about foul play unless he had suspected that foul play had taken place. Bowe in the act of scoring was illegally prevented from doing so.


Mr Veldsman’s reply was that there was no foul play in the ‘in goal area' which he mistakenly thought was the only area of play he was allowed to adjudicate on.

Kaplan, surprised by the decision, asked Mr Veldsman to repeat the decision, presumably because he couldn't believe it either. The decision was repeated and the Italians were awarded a 22 dropout.

At the very least Ireland should have been awarded a penalty, but 99 referees out of 100 would have awarded a penalty try and phrased the question in such a way.

It does show how many poor decisions are made by the TMO. It also shows how inconsistent referees can be in this competition and I will guarantee you that one of the forthcoming quarter-finals will be decided by a serious refereeing error or omission.

I sincerely hope it does not happen in Ireland's quarter-final next Saturday. In the meantime we wait for Warren Gatland's trash-talking to start around about Wednesday of this week.