Friday 14 December 2018

Backs to the wall after shocking Irish display

THE weather, pitch and stadium magnificent; the result and, ultimately, the performance shocking. This game was all about winning, and in the end Ireland came a very poor second to Italy, losing 37-22.It would be unfair to say that Italy wanted the win more because for 65 minutes there was little or nothing in it. Certainly the Italians, from minute one, always looked the more likely but due in the main to inadequate and over-zealous refereeing, the game was never allowed to flow.

Be sure on one count, this suited one team and one team only and that team was in green. The feeling was always there that once the game developed beyond the monotony of set piece/penalty after set piece, there could be but one winner and so it proved. It is only right that class should ultimately win out, but at this level there are no such guarantees.

There is no point in trying to disguise the bitter setback that this, the latest in a long litany of defeats, represents. It is a huge blow to morale and confidence within this Irish camp.

For just over an hour we were competitive. Our scrum was solid, our lineout mainly through Malcolm O'Kelly in control. On the downside, apart from one superb David Humphreys break, we looked like creating zilch but then what's new about that?

In a broken game where boot rules and pace drops, Ireland are always in with a shout but once the tempo quickens at all, we look seriously out of our depth. And so it was once again in Bologna on Saturday.

The Italians were gracious in victory afterwards, emphasising their view that the score on the board did not reflect the play on the pitch. However, if a 15-point gap is in some way misleading, I am afraid three tries to one is most certainly not.

`Little France' were everything we expected them to be behind the scrum. They were quick and incisive. Their angles of running at top pace simply ripped us apart. The final whistle just couldn't come quickly enough.

There were some positives but they were minimal. O'Kelly had an enormous 80 minutes in every aspect of his play.

EQUALLY, Niall Hogan as ever gave it his all. David Humphreys, up until his nasty injury, looked calm and composed under pressure. His willingness to move the ball wide was admirable but pointless in the circumstances. We are so weak and so lacking in creative ability in midfield, it is almost embarrassing.

Compare and contrast two identical breaks by the respective No 10s in that first half. `Man of the Match' Diego Dominguez cut clean through the fringe defence on a diagonal run, right to left, from his own 22 early on. Immediately, centre Stoica appeared on his shoulder and took the ball on at serious pace before releasing Marcello Cuttita on the wing. Only a last-ditch tackle by Denis Hickie saved a certain try.

Now what happened when Humphreys made an equally brilliant break from almost the identical position in the Irish half of the field? The simple answer is nothing. The No 10 pulled his pass back to Kevin Maggs who pulled it even further back (and behind) Darragh O'Mahony. The impetus lost, the break snuffed out with ease. Two identical breaks, but each light years apart from the other in terms of the respective net gains.

THERE are certain golden rules which must be adhered to at this level. Chief amongst them, you protect possession with your life. Ireland turned over ball far too easily and far too often.

A nod is as good as a wink to players of this ability and this pace. We had been told all week in the build-up as to the potential damage that new full-back Corrado Pilat could inflict. He did and often. Flat passing close to the gain line and good hard angled running by the young No 15 did the rest. We had no answer in defence and nothing comparable in attack.

It is one thing recycling ball and retaining possession, but quite another knowing when and how to deliver quick ruck ball to a line intent on running. Again I ask you to compare the speed with which the ball emerged from the areas of contact in the build-up to the Italian tries. Quickly won ball transferred flat at pace.

We are incapable of producing such quality ball. And more's the pity because in Kevin Nowlan, we possess an international full-back with the pace to play that game on the edge.

It is highly significant that almost all our tries in recent times have come without our midfield backs directly involved.

But back to Saturday's disaster. Our front row was solid in the scrum, efficient in the lineout and little else beside. Our second row was as as busy and effective about the field as ever. Our back row was unbalanced and ineffective to the point of anonymity at times. Individually they may have had their moments, but as a unit they were a disaster with Kieron Dawson's absence more sorely felt than anyone could have imagined.

Dylan O'Grady has much to offer this team, but it can only be in the No 6 shirt at this level. He was like the proverbial fish out of water on the open side on Saturday.

Our half-backs were good in difficult circumstances, with Hogan outstanding in general play. His recall was fully justified. Outside of that, with the notable exception of Darragh O'Mahony on the left wing, our three-quarters made up the numbers with all the class on show wearing blue?

So where to now? The coach is more aware than anybody of the shortcomings in this Irish team. Save for Eric Elwood's superb reverse pass for O'Mahony's try late on, the back-line passing in that final quarter was downright embarrassing.

BRIAN ASHTON needs the support of the Irish rugby public now more than ever. Great patience is required all round. However, I suggest that \between now and the start of the Five Nations in February, every spare moment is devoted to reintroducing the quick ruck ball to Irish rugby. I don't care how much the game has changed, the ruck is as important now as it has ever been.

Of course, there were other factors involved in Saturday's defeat. The awful refereeing. The persistent `professional fouling' (continuously killing the ball to prevent continuity phase possession) by the home team. Injuries to key players, Keith Wood and Humphreys, at a crucial time in the match. Not scoring when we were well on top either side of half-time. Conceding that all important first try, etc, etc, etc.

All of these are relevant but, in the overall context, only that. We lost to a better team playing an exciting brand of rugby. But it is a style of play well within the compass of many in this Irish squad.


LEAST effective game so far. Hardly noticed in attack. Much too flat in defence and exposed early on by Dominguez. 6.


ONE sliced kick apart, some good defensive work. Still not involved enough. 6.


THE search for an outside centre continues. This game passed him by. 5.


IF only we could bottle his `bottle' and feed it on to some of the others. Always willing. 6.


OUR best three-quarter. A solid all-round comeback performance. Here to stay. 7.


APART from two miscued kicks to touch and one poor restart, Humphreys was in command throughout. A successful return. 7.


PERHAPS the best Irish player on the day. More than justified his selection. Now surely the definitive No 2 scrum-half. 8.


PERFORMED his basic set-piece functions but spilled a couple of crucial balls through sheer enthusiasm. 6.


NOT the rampaging Woody for the simple reason he is not yet 100 per cent right. 6.


LIKE Corrigan, did the basics in the tight but probably not enough to retain his place. 6.


WHAT you see is what you get. Total effort from first whistle to last. 7.


VIED with Hogan for best Irish player. Effective in all facets of his play. Gradually establishing a presence. 8.


SOME important tackles but all going backwards, including one try saver. Will be under pressure, probably from O'Grady. 6.


A TOUGH no-nonsense flanker but not on the open side at this level. Badly exposed at times. 5.


SOME moments of sheer footballing magic from our most gifted player, but nowhere near enough. 7.


DID well in limited time including his favourite `Connacht party trick.' 6.

* Alan Clarke and Victor Costello not on long enough to rate.

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