Wednesday 16 October 2019

Neil Francis: Foregone conclusion at Aviva like a Bloody Mary without the vodka

Jordan Larmour sets off on a run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Jordan Larmour sets off on a run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We all have nightmares - recurring nightmares; devils, demons, bogeymen and vampires - all stock stuff but not real.

Italy experienced a nightmare that visits me from time to time. You all know it. It's the patient on the operating table and the surgeon begins to operate on you without any anaesthetic.

This happened to Italy yesterday - they were awake and fully conscious and yet they couldn't move and couldn't do anything to prevent what was happening to them. They could see the doctors in surgical gowns, the scalpel appeared and the surgeon proceeded to remove their colon without any pain relief. There was a suction hose and sutures, and so the amount of blood was limited and the result was gruesome.

Italy were poorer than usual yesterday, defensively they went through the motions and were only half-serious about keeping their shape and keeping the scoreline down. There was nothing they could do to prevent Ireland performing a job on them and the chasm in quality was not really fully reflected in the 56-19 scoreline. Somewhere in the last quarter the patient woke up or the surgeon went to sleep and Italy managed to pick up three reasonably skilfully constructed tries - all preventable. As the game wound down into the last five minutes you had the unedifying spectacle of Italy chasing a try bonus point. The case against the winners, m'lud, was that Ireland became so loose that this will have ramifications later on in the Championship.

This was not a real Test match, it was a training run and if this management were asked how did you train during the week the answer would be so-so. The value in yesterday's game was purely to enhance fitness levels as Ireland played at a pace that Italy could not match.

But is it real rugby? Yesterday's game was like a Bloody Mary without the vodka. You have sympathy for Ireland because it is hard to negotiate foregone conclusions. The trick is to subdue your opponent and get off the park without any collateral damage. Ireland failed on the second point. Tadhg Furlong became the umpteenth Leinster player to pull a hamstring in the last three seasons.

We know that props have hamstrings because Cian Healy had a hamstring avulsion where he tore the hamstring off the bone. Two weeks ago promising Ireland under 20 No 8 Caelan Doris tore his hamstring off the bone. This is on top of Rhys Ruddock, whose season also ended a couple of weeks ago with a significant hamstring tear.

We await to see how bad Furlong's injury is. To do damage to your hamstring in the third minute of any Test match just doesn't sit well. When are Leinster going to do something about this epidemic?

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The Welsh game in two weeks' time will be a very different game to what we saw yesterday and Furlong's presence is vital if we are to prevail against the Welsh.

The plus side to that was that Andrew Porter had a very satisfactory first Six Nations Test cap and you could trust that he would not in any way struggle against whatever the Welsh throw against him. It was a great day for St Andrew's College yesterday as two of their alumni represented Ireland on the same day. A significant achievement. All those prayers we said when John Hayes retired and then when Mike Ross retired - Ireland's stock of tightheads is deep and the switch from loose head to tighthead completed with the minimum of hassle.

It looks like Robbie Henshaw is out for the season. There is an art to scoring tries and Henshaw, although he hasn't scored a huge amount of tries for Ireland, has scored some significant ones in his time for the Irish green. The key to scoring is to not relax when you are touching down when somebody is chasing you. Tommaso Benvenuti kept up the chase even though he had no realistic chance of stopping him. Henshaw relaxed as he dotted down and Benvenuti jumped him in the act of scoring and you could see the damage was done straight away. If you are not convinced think back and ask yourself how many players are injured scoring.

Joe Schmidt's plan was a well-written instruction manual on how to beat Italy. A strong concentration on the short side with short, accurate and fast passing which forced Italy to make their tackle but inevitably Ireland always seemed to get a man away down the touchline and this would pay dividends when the ball was reversed and there would be no blanket of Italian defenders to smash Irish runners.

The gambit and the emphasis paid off and left Schmidt's players less bruised after the encounter. Why engage Italy's mass ranks on the open side in a game of attrition when you can play football the other way?

Ireland engaged in a game of mesmerising diversity where all their plays were designed to make Italy think and question themselves about what was coming next. What underscored what Ireland did was the quality of their passing.

Leinster in the middle of their European prominence were the best passing side in Europe and yesterday Ireland's success was down to the quality of their passing. It is true that they became a bit skittish late on and some of their passing did not go to hand, but on balance the vast majority of everything that went to hand stuck.

There were some fretful moments when Italy got a chance to play and if I'm not mistaken this kid Matteo Minozzi is a player of real ability. He caused Ireland a number of difficult moments.

Jordan Larmour is also a player of real ability but three times yesterday he got caught square. A salutary lesson for him. Joey Carbery too missed a glaring tackle and there were moments when Ireland lost their form and became loose when they were chasing a bigger score.

To concede 19 points to Italy, that will take some of the gloss off this one. Ireland only missed six tackles and they only conceded a truly miserly three penalties but another two weeks in the Schmidt programme and this will be eradicated. The question now is where do we find a fit second centre who can pass the ball?

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