Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Ireland need to absorb lessons and resolve their outhalf dilemma

The Six Nations has reshaped World Cup prospects with Italy emerging as an opponent of real menace, writes Eddie Butler

Since the expansion of the Five Nations to Six it has been unusual not to have a Grand Slam.

In the 11-year history of the championship before this, there were seven clean sweeps, with France compiling three, Wales two and Ireland and England one apiece. It seemed that Italy's role was to provide a stern test, but one that served only to help the unbeaten side gather momentum and gain confidence.

Talk of the Grand Slam again dominated the championship of 2011, with England's timely rise to prominence after a gap of eight years.

To play a handling game with insistence -- when everybody else was lapsing into a game of hoof and chase -- showed a technical self-awareness typified by the passing of Toby Flood and the support runs of Chris Ashton. These flashes of precision complemented their growing strength of mind in the face of some pretty specific pre-match sledging from all quarters.

England have rediscovered that they don't have to waste too much time on the psychology of preparation. Warren Gatland and Marc Lievremont did much of it for them, and not just in relation to the tilts of their respective countries at the old foe, but in reinforcing the long-term resolve of the England players.

I was talking to a 2003 World Cup winner last week and he was impressed with the way that the team of 2011 have quickly learned not to give a fig about what anyone thinks or says about them. I think his exact words were: "These kids don't give a shit." In that respect Martin Johnson has worked his mojo well, and will need to do so again to pick up thepieces of last night's calamity. But I suspect that only now have England come to terms with the hurt that soon followed their glory year of 2003. They were the best team in the world by dint of hard work and humility, and still everybody wanted only to knock seven bells out of them.

But not even England's progress comes close to the outstanding achievement of the Six Nations, Italy beating France. It didn't matter if Bryce Lawrence could have penalised the Italian scrum at any of the three scrums at the death, or that Aurelien Rougerie had dropped the ball over the line.

What mattered was that the side that had only ever taken a hammering from France beat the defending Grand Slam champions. Take everything on offer; the moment may not last.

From being mocked as almost as bad a convert into a kicker as his brother Mauro was into a scrumhalf, Mirco Bergamasco stroked over his penalties. On shoulders that could hardly bear any more weight, Sergio Parisse hoisted yet more load and thundered into France.

Fabio Semenzato surfaced as a scrumhalf of talent when it seemed that Italy could never recover from the loss of a rare product of their own development programme, Edoardo Gori, in the opening minutes of their first game, a defeat by Ireland. The two Gonzalos in the centres, Garcia and Canale, showed that the promise of giving width to the Italian game may yet be kept.

But above all, Italy gave a picture of joy to the watching world. The embraces offered to coach Nick Mallett by his players spoke of a rare bond between conductor and orchestra. I wonder if Lievremont will ever be clamped to the bosom of his French players. Once the words "cowardice" and "betrayal" have passed your lips in the analysis of a performance, it takes some kind of apology to swing the changing room back your way.

France under Lievremont have beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2009 and won the Grand Slam in 2010. In truth, it wasn't the grandest of slams, and a more accurate pointer to the state of the French international team came in the autumn when they capitulated at home to Australia.

France crave consistency and yet chop and change their players at every turn. The management apparently insist on imposing a style template, where the game is split into neat quarters, on players that have been bred to react instinctively to what they find before them, no matter where or when.

On the Celtic edge, there was also much agonising. Scotland are still, no doubt, wondering how it all went so horribly wrong for them. Ireland, generally unflappable under Declan Kidney -- almost without a pulse sometimes -- grew scratchy over their outhalf issue: Ronan O'Gara or Jonathan Sexton?

As the Celtic performances grew tighter and tighter -- Wales won three on the trot by refusing to keep the ball -- things became condensed into the question of confidence.

I just wonder if there is more to it than that. Wales, Scotland and Ireland will play in World Cup groups that are not going to be navigated by cutting dreamy patterns of daring and adventure. Wales have Fiji and Samoa in their group, and are more likely to chance their arm against South Africa than the islanders of the South Pacific.

A kicking game that allows Samoa and Fiji to counter-attack on home soil -- this is not just a home World Cup for New Zealand, but also for everyone that learned to play there -- might appear risky, but Wales might fancy it more than a free-for-all.

Ireland have the slight advantage of having two minnows in their pool -- how weird to be calling Russia and the USA that -- but if Australia are undeniably their toughest opponent, there is the hottest property in the market of emotion-laden rugby to face -- Italy. The Six Nations has reshaped World Cup prospects.

England have Scotland in their group, with Argentina, Georgia and Romania. Did anything happen at Twickenham last week to make the Scots dread playing them on neutral soil? As one tournament closes its doors, the next opens silently on well-oiled hinges. European rugby moves on, repeating to itself the lessons of the last two months: Take everything; give nothing.


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