Thursday 22 March 2018

O'Driscoll's inspiration only crumb of comfort

Turgid performance will see Kidney's men head to Paris as underdogs, writes John O'Brien

IN the end Ireland's biggest enemy wasn't clad in a blue jersey yesterday. The anticipated gauntlet that would be thrown down by an Italian pack that had controversially clobbered its All Black counterpart in Milan last November never materialised. Ireland held their own in the scrummaging department, and more. Cian Healy burnished his growing reputation by seeing off the formidable challenge of Martin Castrogiovanni. But Healy was alone in his achievement. It was a day of perfunctory Irish business. Nothing more than that.

What the Ireland players had to fear most was their own clumsiness and their curious inability to stir themselves out of what looked at all times like a comfortable third gear. For a time the predicted script looked to be on the button: Italy would have the strength to contain Ireland for a long spell of the game before ultimately wilting and giving way. Ireland missed their role, though. They won the game but failed to drive their superiority home. If bonus points mattered, they would have fallen well short. Is this how champions are supposed to operate?

But this, you can be sure, is how Declan Kidney would have wanted it. A scratchy, unimpressive win against opponents who proved grittier and far more stubborn that they had any right to expect against the reigning Grand Slam champions. In the event of a close-run championship, an 18-point victory against feeble opposition could prove costly but Kidney will probably consider that a bearable evil.

If the Ireland coach was looking for a way to keep his high-flying team grounded, yesterday's game will have given him a rich seam of material to mine. They won but not with the style and poise you would be entitled to expect of a team with their status. At times it was a horror show. In the 15 minutes after the interval Ireland were unrecognisable from the team that had sailed through 2009 unbeaten. There is work to do before they board the plane for Paris on Thursday and Kidney, perhaps, would want it no other way.

Afterwards it wasn't possible to detect any trace of disappointment in the Irish reaction. The crowd in excess of 77,000 were subdued at the death but such a low-key encounter had never roused them to any great extent anyway. David Wallace spoke of the physicality of the game, how much he was feeling the effort he had put in, but that was nothing different to what any Irish player says after an encounter with Italy anyway. In truth no Irish player did more than he needed to.

Kidney would tacitly encouraged that attitude. The Irish coach regularly regurgitates the cliche of taking one game at a time but, clearly, he managed proceedings with one eye on next week's decisive encounter in Paris. Paul O'Connell departed on the hour mark for what looked a fairly innocuous knock on the head and he was followed quickly by a succession of Ireland's game-breakers: Wallace, Ronan O'Gara, Tomas O'Leary, John Hayes. Next week was everything.

Yet you wonder what we should expect of this team now. Not much more than a decade has elapsed when any sort of a victory over yesterday's opposition would have been considered a decent day's work. Times have changed, of course, but not seemingly to the extent when a buoyant Ireland team should be routinely running in a glut of tries against tough but technically far inferior teams. So yesterday's uninspired performance will surely ensure they head for the Stade de France as underdogs. You can imagine Kidney smiling at the prospect. A job well done.

The Ireland coach will undoubtedly know his history, though, and will recall that a decade ago Ireland put six tries and 60 points on Italy a week before the famous victory in Paris that marked Brian O'Driscoll's emergence on the world stage. Yet that was the same Ireland team that had shipped a record 50 points in Twickenham a month earlier. That irritating inconsistency has been dispelled now. Even if they didn't cut loose yesterday, you can be confident of what you will get with a Kidney-coached team. That is how far they have come in a decade.

And in considering how the new season has kicked off, it seemed pertinent to remember the dying moments of the dazzling one just passed: O'Driscoll standing like a bulwark to stop Zane Kirchner's desperate charge to the Irish line in the Croke Park mist last November. Ireland's season of season had many strands but nothing seemed to define it better than O'Driscoll's defiance. The final moment would fittingly be the one that lingered.

And if you so wished you could have marked the first truly memorable moment of 2010 by O'Driscoll's excellence too. A quarter of the game had passed by the time the captain made his first meaningful contribution. By then Ireland were 10-0 ahead and the Italians carried little if any threat. Still it was far from vintage rugby. The crowd was quiet and a touch narky even. You remembered how Roy Keane once seized such moments when he was at the heart of the Irish football team. O'Driscoll is Keane's most natural successor.

So when O'Driscoll found himself in possession near his own 22 he was faced with a blanket of Italian players in front of him. No matter. His first trick was to feign a long kick which the three Italians near him willingly bought. Instead O'Driscoll dipped his body and gracefully chipped the ball over their heads, gathering it without trouble and then eating up the green space in front of him. His next chip intended for O'Leary was marginally over-kicked and the prospect of a wonderful try was dashed.

It provided a salutary reminder, however, that regardless of the opposition -- whether it is the whipping boys of Italy or the rugby bluebloods of South Africa -- with the quick brain and nimble feet of the Irish captain on board, a necessary flash of inspiration is only ever a heartbeat away. The next six days cannot pass quickly enough.

Sunday Independent

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