Sunday 22 April 2018

Neil Francis: Scotland won't be able to live with this level of performance

Ireland supporters celebrate as Sean Cronin of Ireland scores his team's seventh try. Photo: Getty
Ireland supporters celebrate as Sean Cronin of Ireland scores his team's seventh try. Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

After a match of paralysing ineptitude and a performance where the word 'turgid' has no meaning any more, Ireland just about beat Italy at the death. The calls for Joe Schmidt's head will grow even louder and Ireland must . . .

Sorry wrong script. Wrong match!

How satisfied should we be? This was so much more than a professional disposal of a very limited Italian side. Ireland still have the best coach in the Six Nations and the 23 players who represented Ireland yesterday are capable of being competitive against anyone, and when they get their missing quality back they will be a very good side.

Joe Schmidt showed no obvious signs of relief in his post-match comments. He seemed to be deliberately downbeat and maybe a little bit pissed off that some of his players might have gone off piste with the game-plan - hard to hold the horses when the stable door is open.

Schmidt mentioned the word 'space' all the way through his interviews. We know other people who have mentioned that term with the rider 'fiscal' put in front of it, and in the final analysis that didn't look too clever. He referred to space to play - in any meaningful Test match it is a space oddity where you get room to show your wares and play some footie. Were Ireland afforded space or did they go and manufacture some? The stats will only tell you half the story.

A 58-point thrashing suggests that Italy were falling off tackles all afternoon but they made 92 per cent of their tackles, missing only 16 of 192; in the Six Nations that would constitute quite a tidy defensive performance. Ireland also were at 92 per cent efficiency, missing just 10 tackles. From my vantage point Italy's line-speed was maintained throughout their performance and they were brave and redoubtable when they knew what was ahead of them coming in to the second half.

Ireland threatened to cut loose and yet Italy kept on making their tackles. The damage of course was done up front, with Marco Fuser and George Biagi, their powerhouse second rows, off the park midway through the first half, Italy's competence at the set-piece and at ruck time collapsed and they would spend a lot of the afternoon trying to compensate for this lack of power.

As the final whistle blew I observed Sergio Parisse walking off the park in a daze. I'm not sure what the Italian for 'fuck this for a game of soldiers' is but it looked like that was going through the Italian captain's head as he made his way to the dressing room. Sure, Italy have had plenty of blow-outs before and yes, they were missing a lot of quality, particularly at halfback, but you got the sense that for such a champion days like this just come too often.

I personally did not expect that type of a scoreline, especially since Italy had given such an uncompromising and threatening performance at the Olympic Stadium in London less than five months ago. For them this match marked a return to a base-line which I thought that they would not revisit for a while. There is a baseball term called 'the Mendoza line' which is a figurative boundary or the low end cut-off point between acceptable and unacceptable mediocrity. That was breached yesterday.

I wish my colleague Conor O'Shea the very best of luck in his endeavours to try and garner some improvement in what Italy can and cannot do over the next three or four seasons. There is a numbing sameness about the way that they play and I'm not sure what can be done to improve it.

Yet yesterday they were obstinate and brave and they made Ireland work for all of their nine tries. That sounds like a trite comment but Ireland did have to be accurate with everything that they did, and unlike Twickenham two weeks ago where there were opportunities squandered, yesterday there were about a dozen chances and Ireland managed to take nine.

Of all Ireland's tries the one scored by Jamie Heaslip seconds before half-time demands further investigation purely because it was a rarity in terms of its fluidity and the players' ability to connect. The Italians made all their tackles but it was the three offloads - which are verboten - which enabled Ireland to succeed. There were about ten points of continuity which all worked brilliantly, from Donnacha Ryan knocking back the dropout to Jack McGrath vacuuming it up through to Johnny Sexton's exchange with Fergus McFadden.

The first thing that came out of the ordinary was Simon Zebo's intervention and the reason it worked was because he came from deep, holding back against instinct to come up and join the line earlier than he thought. His pace from the delayed run was the difference between getting outside Campagnaro and being tackled on the gainline. Zebo kicked on and his impressive leg pump broke the line as Michele Campagnaro eventually got the tackle in. The offload out of the back of the hand to Jared Payne was brilliantly executed and Payne joined in the party with his own basketball pea-flicker to Sexton.

The move could have died there and then when Sexton gathered, but he showed the ball to the last defender, which made all the Italians stop momentarily and gave him space to connect with Andrew Trimble. Trimble showed good awareness and he got his offload away to McFadden before he connected with Heaslip. McFadden's pass to Heaslip was a poor one but the Leinster number eight had enough wit and composure to make sure of the score. A brilliant try and significantly no missed tackles from the Italians. I suspect Zebo, Payne and Trimble will be put in the 'bold corner' tonight and left there until the morning for their truculence and abandon.

Once again Sexton was Ireland's most important player, and the quality of the passing gets more impressive as his career flourishes.

In fact, apart from the odd stutter and a few checks, Ireland's passing was quick and accurate, and irrespective of what sort of space they get next week, I think they will trouble Scotland once they get the ball past the outside centre.

I'm not sure how much longer some members of the Irish pack will be called unsung heroes. McGrath is now the best loosehead in the northern hemisphere and his quality in every department is close enough to world class. Even the best props after good days are prone to give away at least one stupid penalty; even that element of his game is first class. His carrying and his football and his intelligence are at another level. His importance to the side is not understated by the length of time he plays in every Test match.

Donnacha Ryan too had a really industrious performance. He top-tackled yesterday, as he did in Twickenham. He did not get much ball called on him and quite often when second rows are not active at lineout time or contributing in other spheres they can simply disappear. Ryan goes looking for work. He has played many times on the flank for Munster and his technique is flawless and he really follows through with some of his hits. His clean-outs were good and it was significant that when Ultan Dillane came on for another useful cameo that it was Devin Toner who was replaced. We will have to have another look at Kieran Marmion and in a turkey shoot, Josh van der Flier didn't have the sort of pronounced influence that a free-roving open side could have in a match of this type.

There was plenty of claret flowing yesterday but that would have been one of the easier 80 minutes Ireland have had against Italy in quite a while. Nobody can have any complaints and the criticism, a lot of it unwarranted, should come to an end when Ireland dispose of Scotland next week.

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