Italian defeat suggests long winter of discontent
STATISTICS don't lie. In three matches against Italy over the past three seasons, Ireland have lost on each occasion, conceding 96 points and scoring 63.
Most worrying of all, Italy have crossed for eight tries in those games and Ireland have managed just two. Three matches under three different coaches and Ireland have not managed to deliver once.
What an awful return against a side still trying to confirm that they are worth a place in the Five Nations Championship.
WORTH A PLACE
Of course, Italy are worth a place, everyone knew that before they met Ireland in Bologna on Saturday. What they didn't know was that Irish team would waste such a great chance of inflicting an overdue defeat on the Italians.
Had they won, Ireland would have left themselves in a reasonable frame of mind for the opening Five Nations clash with Scotland at Lansdowne Road on February 7. Instead, they must reflect on a 37-22 defeat and the prospect of another disappointing Five Nations campaign.
All of which makes one wonder if Ireland are any better than they were after losing 37-29 to the Italians at Lansdowne Road last January, a match which brought an end to Murray Kidd's tenure as coach. Manager Pat Whelan is adamant that there is no comparison between last January's loss and Saturday's defeat but then he would say that, wouldn't he.
My view is that Ireland are probably better than they were last January, but still nowhere near good enough. The difficulty is that other nations, the Italians being a shining example, have make much greater strides.
They beat France after last season's Five Nations, something Ireland haven't come remotely close to doing and managed to score 31 points in losing to South Africa recently. Significantly, they feel they defeated Ireland comfortably on Saturday without being at their best.
Okay, the referee was awful, the unavailability of some players and the injuries to David Humphreys and Keith Wood didn't help but this was not an Irish performance to provide any hope for the Five Nations.
Ireland should be thankful that at least they start with a home match against Scotland. After losing 68-10 to South Africa last time out, the Scots also appear to be in big trouble.
Even so, I don't think there will be many people rushing out to put their life savings on Ireland, remembering that they were trounced by the Scots in Murrayfield in the final game of last season's Championship. The February 7 match is now of huge importance, it is an encounter which will define our season. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Scotland cope against the Italians when they meet in Treviso on January 24.
Should Ireland fail to beat the Scots, they will be looking at another miserable season. A defeat followed by a four week gap before going to Paris to face France for the second outing hardly bears thinking about.
Searching for some encouragement from last Saturday's defeat, coach Brian Ashton argued that Ireland had created quite a few chances. That may be so, but isn't every game about taking your chances.
Despite Saturday's defeat, there were some useful individual performances, notably from Malcolm O'Kelly in the pack while David Humphreys performed well on his return at out-half.
Although the scrum was more than adequate, Reggie Corrigan and Peter Clohessy are likely to make way for the return of Nick Popplewell and Paul Wallace to the front-row.
In the back-row both Dylan O'Grady and David Erskine must be vulnerable after disappointing performances on Saturday.
Kieron Dawson would seem to be the front runner for the open side spot with David Corkery, now that he is back playing for Bristol, possibly returning on the blind side. Corkery didn't do himself any favours in his last outing for Ireland against the Scots at the end of last season but there were mitigating circumstances.
Having broken a bone in his hand in the victory over Wales, he should never have featured in the final two games against England and Scotland. Instead, he was convinced to do so.
BACK IN THE FRAME
I suspect Conor McGuinness could return at scrum-half, although Niall Hogan enjoyed one of his best games for Ireland and has undoubtedly put himself back into the frame. Humphreys is likely to stay at out-half, but a fit again Jonathan Bell may be recalled to the centre, a position where Ireland badly need a cutting edge.
With Richard Wallace back playing well, he could come into contention for one of the wing spots. Sadly, Simon Geoghegan appears to be out of contention following his withdrawal from the Bath squad last week.
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