Saturday 24 February 2018

Laboured display puts paid to any early momentum

Ireland 29
Italy 11

If the Six Nations Championship is the jewel in the crown of northern hemisphere rugby, then the bits that shine least are those which feature Italy playing away from home. So for the 77,686 who turned up to Croke Park on a beautiful day, the key ingredient was missing: they knew from the start who was going to win.

What they didn't know was that they would have left the ground feeling that an opportunity for building momentum, which is the key ingredient in this tournament, was left behind them.

At breakfast time the rain and grey clouds overhead might have suggested that it would be a slog; at least one where the conditions determined a game of slipping and sliding. By kick-off, it was a different day however, and all that slipped was Ireland's accuracy.

Statistically, Italy were shocking at the set-piece. Midway through the second half an Italian correspondent was heard to cry "Hallelujah!" when his team came up with a ball from their own lineout. Even on the bad days it's not often you see a team lose more than half the number they win at the lineout, but Italy managed it. At least they were consistent: four in each half. And at the scrum, the wrecking ball they use as their calling card in Test rugby?

Well, Martin Castrogiovanni was called ashore before the hour mark, having conceded two penalties against Cian Healy, and by the end they had given up four at this phase.

So how did they turn over 23-8 down at half-time, and appear to be in a hopeless position, only to lose the second half on a margin of just 6-3? In fairness, their defence was very good, and there was one extraordinarily long phase in the fourth quarter in which they applied themselves as if it was 0-0 and only five minutes gone. And at its end, all they had given up was a scrum.

And the team they were defending against were running out of patience trying to turn promise into points. Soon after that, Paul O'Connell went off with an eye injury, to be followed by Ronan O'Gara -- who had shot an impressive six from six -- and it all looked pretty ragged.

It's likely that Declan Kidney will lose more sleep over the imbalance between his team's dominance of the set-piece and their poor return on the scoreboard than on the fitness of O'Connell and O'Gara for Paris. Both of them left under their own steam, and, encouragingly, O'Gara was able initially to continue briefly having taken the bang on his knee.

So, it was a winning start to the defence of the championship and Ireland's run of games unbeaten now stretches to 12. But given the trend of the first half, even the bookies would have been prepared to pay out on their estimated gap of Ireland plus 20 points.

The first sign that Italy would be in trouble was when in the opening few minutes they got a foothold in the Irish 22, and with new cap Kevin McLaughlin straying offside and virtually acknowledging as much, three points should have followed.

Play on said Mr Poite, whereupon Italy promptly turned the ball over at the next breakdown. When it's Italy you're looking at, a sequence like that is usually a portent of doom for no side needs quick entry to a game like they do. Instead Ireland were stalling them at the door and asking all sorts of awkward questions. O'Connell was laying waste to their lineout where you felt for Leonardo Ghiraldini. Not easy being the captain and having to carry the can for some dodgy throwing.

They were 10 points down after 15 minutes, which again suggested that it could get ugly or beautiful, depending on your perspective, before the finish. First O'Gara knocked over a penalty against Castrogiovanni, and then Jamie Heaslip scored his fourth Test try when getting on the end of a lovely move that started with a perfectly delivered flat pass from O'Gara to Andrew Trimble.

The selection of the Ulster wing was one of the few items of interest last week. It was a reward for solid form and he played like that. Solidly. His 'to-do' list however was short, and if there was anybody else in the vicinity he tended to give them the ball almost with deference. Possibly he was favouring his hamstring which subsequently was described "tight".

Even when Ireland's scrum creaked, as it did badly to cough up a penalty which Craig Gower nailed with a tremendous kick, there would be an escape hatch at the restart. In that instance they were penalised immediately and O'Gara took the three points back off them.

On 33 minutes he slotted another when Gonzalo Garcia dropped Brian O'Driscoll from a height. So, 16-3 ahead and the opposition down to 14 men and four minutes later it became 23-3 after Tomas O'Leary -- who passed really well all day -- squeezed over from close in. They might have scored sooner but Rob Kearney couldn't hold a pass that may not have been meant for him in any case.

It was a microcosm of Kearney's afternoon where he became increasingly frustrated at his poor form. His kicking was ordinary and just before the break, with Ireland leading 23-3 after another O'Gara penalty, he was blocked by Kaine Robertson who followed up and scored.

Early in the second half Mirco Bergamasco added another three points when McLaughlin, who had a decent debut, was done for not releasing. Typically, however, Ireland pilfered the restart and again Italy's inroad was cancelled out by O'Gara.

The mental edge you get from that stuff, when your opponent takes one step forward and immediately one step back, should result in a more lopsided finish, but it never happened. It was late in the day, soon after replacement Paddy Wallace tapped over a penalty, when Gordon D'Arcy got clean through in the Italy 22, but Ireland were turned over when the ball broke down. That frustrated them even more. In the end, they looked glad to get off the pitch.

Sunday Independent

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