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Ineptitude of ball handling sparked Italy

In the post-Andy Gray era, it's probably a little bit inappropriate to use this analogy, but I think it's relevant.

In one of my favourite movies As Good As It Gets, author Melvyn Udall (Jack Nicholson) was asked to describe how he could write women so well, "I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability." I think he could write Romain Poite wonderfully well.

In an astonishing pre-match admission it transpired that yesterday's referee Poite had written to the Italian Rugby Union and apologised for the way he had refereed Martin Castrogiovanni in the corresponding fixture two years ago. If Castrogiovanni was a cat, Lloyds of London would only insure him for one life. In that match two years ago, the Italian prop gave away five consecutive penalties. Poite was absolutely correct in how he penalised him.

Yesterday, his apology was brought on to the field as he penalised Ireland with impunity at scrum-time. The penalty count of 13-5 against Ireland doesn't really tell the story. Referees normally observe the scrumhalf putting the ball into the scrum from that side of the scrum. For most of yesterday he went over to the other side to see if he could give another penalty against Cian Healy.

There is no question that he was refereeing only one side at scrum-time and at the breakdown. His treatment was bewildering and unsympathetic. Castrogiovanni for his part was doing exactly what he did in the match two years ago and didn't get pinged once. Poite is a circus without a tent. But was he to blame for a sub-standard Irish performance? No.

It's a rum business trying to get your tactics right against very awkward opponents who were in a very determined mood yesterday. Ireland chose the right strategy. The number one course of action when you are playing away from home is taking away the 16th man.

The objective was to try and bow the Italian crowd into murmurous passivity and the key to this was to keep the ball and do it in much the same way as England had done on Friday night against Wales. Ireland rarely kicked the ball in the first half and they monopolised possession in the hope that with their patience kept they would exploit weakness outside the outside centre.

However, they played with such withering ineptitude when it came to the penultimate pass that Italy were spared any moments of panic and the Azzurri defended with a serenity of demeanour which unsettled Ireland. The Italians did not lose their shape and as Ireland made error after error the Azzurri were drip-fed hope that nourished their appetite and their confidence blossomed the longer the game went on.

Incredibly, it was the Leinster players in the side who were making most of the mistakes -- three knock-ons from Gordon D'Arcy in open field situations told a tale. Once again, a sight that I thought had been banished, we witnessed Brian O'Driscoll's passing yips as some of his distribution defied belief, particularly his lofted attempt to Fergus McFadden in the second half with the line open.

Being 6-3 behind at half time should not have been a concern for Ireland, it was clear that they were the superior side. Simple adjustments were all that were needed at that stage, mistake minimisation and a recognition that sloppy execution had to go.

Three minutes in and there was a revelation of character. O'Driscoll scored early. From a decent scrum, Seán O'Brien, Tomás O'Leary and Keith Earls (in off his wing) made progress. Jonathan Sexton, for a reason known only to himself, switched play onto the blindside on the left where there was a 5-1 under-lap. Making amends for his error, he held on to the ball against superior physical force.

The Italian defence, which had shown wonderful resourcefulness and composure, got itself jumbled and O'Driscoll saw weakness and space as he stood up a couple of crash-test dummies and went outside Castrogiovanni and inside Salvatore Perugini.

Ireland were ineffectual in making profit from their line breaks. D'Arcy knocked on going over the line and McFadden would have needed to have been Dick Fosbury to take O'Driscoll's offering.

This imaginary line between triumph and disaster, well nobody said that it was geometrically linear and Ireland attempted to walk it with a four-point lead against a side that managed to play a one-dimensional game with a disquieting level of success. The crowd, hitherto paralysed with boredom, became incontinent with delight -- suddenly the game was on.

The change in emphasis was perceptible, Ireland were no longer looking to put the Italians away but were merely looking to close it out. Leamy's yellow in the 73rd minute for hands in the ruck had the added effect of putting gasoline on the fire and the Italians cranked it up. Supreme confidence in their lineout, their set scrum and wonderfully efficient and dynamic maul led the Italians to opt for the lineout rather than three points from another concession within range.

All it took was three or four recycles and Ireland were stretched. Masi came in off the right wing from broken play which just shows you that the Italians can play in broken field situations.

The ball came to Luke McClean with Mirco Bergamasco outside, and he was untouched as he dotted down. Luke Fitzgerald, as he had done for Saracens' third try at the RDS, needlessly came in from the sideline to make the cut-off, a low percentage play he will have to eradicate. Bergamasco crucially missed the conversion and Ireland had an out.

If nothing, this Irish team had unrelenting will and they also had the tenacity to persevere. They have their two-minute drill down to a fine art, it started with Ronan O'Gara's steepling drop-off, which gave the chase room to get under the ball and force an error. They managed to ensure that only quality and trusted players carried the ball -- O'Driscoll twice, O'Brien and Wallace, who surely could not knock it on as often as D'Arcy had. The play went left so that O'Gara would be on his right foot; you just knew he would not miss. As Kidney said after the match, "you just cannot coach the last three minutes in that sort of a game."

This is true, but what about the previous 77? Les Kiss will have been reasonably happy with his 99 per cent tackle success, but Ireland's line speed and concession of the gain line is a worry.

Alan Gaffney's contribution will have to be seriously examined. How could this Leinster back line play with such a loss of conviction? As a player I hated playing these types of matches, as a spectator I hate watching them and as an analyst I hate dissecting them. Ireland, I'm pretty certain, will be a far better side next Sunday.

Sunday Indo Sport